Lasko woke up to the sound of banging coming from outside. Boyish arguing voices drifted in from the empty doorway.
“Hit it harder.”
“I’m hitting it as hard as I can, it’s not bending.”
“Give it here, let me try.” More banging commenced.
Sitting up, the man realized that his naked body was now clothed in a large ragged garment. It covered him like a hospital gown, and it looked… like it had been made out of a bed sheet.
He looked underneath the sheet to re-confirm the effects of the miraculous healing. It was unbelievable. The red skin was completely gone, the only marks being the man’s moles and thin muscles. Examining his long, (and somewhat skinny) arms, the man gently flexed as he gently touched a small scar. He looked around for more defining marks, even pulling out a couple short brown hairs from his scalp, but he saw nothing that could help identify who he was. All the man had to go on was his name.
My name… Lasko.
Getting up slowly, Lasko tested his legs and balance carefully. Everything seemed to be working properly, and the man came to the entrance of the hut, squinting into the bright sun. He was met with the incredible view; the giant black columns contrasting against the pale grey clouds, rising up into the sky until they faded out of sight.
There didn’t seem to be as much garbage this close to the “gate,” but there were still low hills of the trash, preventing a clear view of the base of the giant gate. The man looked around for other makeshift huts, but there were none, this was the only structure in sight. There was also no living green; no sign of any kind of plant life. The soil itself had a weird bluish-silver tint to the typical arid brown dirt.
In front of the entrance, the two young boys were hovering over an unfamiliar piece of machinery. A section of it had been recently scoured of dirt and rust; guessing by the condition of the uncleaned remainder, Lasko guessed that it had come from the trash heaps.
Sharp was pounding away at a metal flap on the machine, while Tunnel squatted nearby, watching dutifully. Lasko, unnoticed by the two boys, observed them from the doorway; getting a good look at the two for the first time. Both of the boys were skinny, although not dangerously so. Although their bodies and hair were filthy, their faces were very clean in comparison. They haven’t showered recently, Lasko thought, but apparently they are washing their faces, and they seem well fed enough…
The clothes that they were wearing were tattered, but looked like they were once a quality set of rugged clothing. They both had on a pair of odd, uniform shoes of identical plain grey color, with no laces of any kind, and they were so thin that at first Lasko had thought they were socks, if he hadn’t caught a glimpse of marks the ridged soles left in the dirt.
Lasko focused in on Sharp, the plain leader of the young duo. The black haired kid, who was currently wiping off his sweat, looked to be anywhere from twelve to thirteen years old. Around his waist, the boy wore a thick utility belt of some kind, with compartments and various tools hanging from it. There was a peculiar ornament for a buckle; it looked to be a milky white stone.
A pipe or baton of some sort was strapped to the outside of his thigh; he looked every inch the industrious mechanic. There was a constant look of seriousness on the boy’s face, his mouth set in a grim line. He would look more like a kid if he smiled more, Lasko gauged.
Tunnel, on the other hand, seemed to smile as often as he could. Even now, the kid was smiling happily as he watched Sharp pound heavily on the machine. Tunnel also had on a belt with the same peculiar ornament, but clearly his belt wasn’t primarily for tools, and more for storage. It had pockets going all around the belt, with a couple small objects hanging from it. The small boy had to be at most ten years old, but Lasko felt that Tunnel was probably a bit younger. Lasko’s gaze drifted up the boy’s arm. There was a strange black marking there, peeking halfway out of Tunnel’s clothing… A tattoo? It was too far to see any details. Lasko wondered where the young boy could have gotten such a marking, but just then, Tunnel looked up, and saw Lasko standing in the doorway.
The young boy’s smile grew even larger, and he waved excitedly. “Lasko! You’re awake!”
Lasko couldn’t help but smile as he came out of the hut towards them.
“How you feeling now, Lasko?” Tunnel asked him. “You slept for a pretty long time…”
“I feel great, thanks to you two.” Lasko said.
“Yeah, and don’t forget it.” Sharp said, his mouth set stiffly.
Lasko smiled awkwardly and nodded, understanding Sharp’s aggressive reminder that Lasko was in debt to them. He scanned the vicinity again, looking for evidence of more people. There were none in sight.
He asked the question that had been bothering him for a while. “Where are your parents?”
There was a pause in the hammering. Tunnel glanced at Sharp, then squinted up at Lasko with an odd expression. Sharp spit off to the side, narrowly missing Lasko’s legs. The hammering resumed, with no one answering the question.
Orphans, or something similar. Lasko had assumed that was the case, but he wanted to know for sure. He quickly changed the topic.
“Are you trying to flatten that thing?” He pointed to the bent metal flap that the boys had been pounding on.
Sharp grimaced. “Yeah, we popped the control door open with a pry bar, but now we can’t get it to close again.”
“Can I try?” Lasko said humbly.
“Okay!” Tunnel quickly agreed to the idea.
Shrugging, Sharp handed over the hammer, a doubtful expression on his face. “Just don’t break the panel.”
“I’ll try not to,” Lasko reassured him, and experimentally tapped at the flap. It was a pretty thick piece of metal, he would have to use a lot of force. But if he overdid it, it was possible that he could damage the lid even further…
“Hmmm.” Lasko looked around.
There were lots of mechanical scrap lying around the ground nearby, and quickly finding what he was looking for, he retrieved the object and brought it to the machine. It was a flat, thick piece of sheet metal. The boys watched silently, Sharp’s eyes were narrowed with suspicion, while Tunnel’s were wide with anticipation.
Arranging the thick metal plate behind the flap, Lasko laid down a few deft strikes.
WHAM, WHAM… WHAM.
In just three strokes, the flap was flattened back into a manageable shape.
“How’s this?” Lasko asked Sharp, who was standing by with raised eyebrows.
The boy stepped forward, and carefully pressed the flap cover the panel opening. There was a click, and a brief whirring as the panel depressed into the machine and metal sheet slid over it, covering the panel from view.
Tunnel cheered. “He fixed it!” ”
“Yeah, well, he only helped a little, still did most of the work.” Sharp eyed Lasko.
Just then Lasko’s stomach growled loudly. Tunnel laughed, and then his own stomach growled as if answering Lasko’s. The two of them looked at each other and, they laughed together.
Even Sharp couldn’t help but chuckle. “I guess we should eat too.”
He headed towards the hut, quickly overtaken by Tunnel, who ran past him excitedly.
“Can’t beat me!” Sharp shouted playfully, and sped up his pace, easily passing Tunnel. This burst of energy and lightheartedness surprised Lasko; he hadn’t seen Sharp do anything child-like up till now.
The two boys raced each other back into the hut, shoving each other on the way, with giggles and laughter. Lasko followed behind, a grin on his face. Even though there was so much that was odd about this strange place, Lasko was glad to see that at least some things seemed familiar.
Lasko entered the hut, to see the two in the corner, huddled around a beat up metal box. It somewhat resembled a metal locker; the kind in schools.
“Look at this,” Sharp said proudly. “This is called a locker.”
Lasko spotted a small engraving on the front. Lake …ich Middle School. The black haired boy placed a hand on a panel. The panel lit up, outlining the small hand.
Chunk. The door popped open. Sharp saw Lasko’s raised eyebrows, and smiled smugly.
“We picked this up a few months ago. None of the other boys ever got anything this big.”
It felt like Sharp was misunderstanding something, but Lasko nodded anyway. He was impressed, but at the technology not the size. He figured that after all of stuff he’d seen so far, he shouldn’t be so surprised. But to be honest, it seemed a little extravagant.
A bio-metric hand-print locking mechanism for a middle-school locker made of thin aluminum? It’d take someone all of thirty seconds to simply cut it open with a circular saw.
The contents of the locker were sparse; except for a few items on a top shelf, the rest of the locker was empty. There was a small stack of some greyish bars, but what drew Lasko’s attention was a small pile of faintly glowing blue… circular stones?
Sharp reached in and grabbed three of bar-like objects off of the shelf before closing the door. He gave the man a suspicious glance.
“Nobody but me can open that locker.” He handed one of the bars to the man. “Here, eat this.”
Sharp tossed another bar to Tunnel and bit a chunk off, sitting down on a metal stool. Tunnel sat down on the nearby cot, gnawing on his own bar. Lasko examined the opaque, grey, bar in his hand.
It was dense with small black freckles spotting the surface. The whole thing looked pretty unappealing; considering all the trash around him, who knows where these bars came from. Noticing that the two boys had stopped eating, and were watching him strangely; he hurriedly took a bite, resolving to find some way to spit it out later.
A rich, sweet flavor washed through his mouth, and his eyes widened at the unexpected flavor. Seeing him eat, the boys went back to enjoying their own bars, munching silently. Suddenly Lasko felt famished, his stomach eating a hole in his abdomen. He swallowed his mouthful, and stuffed as much of the bar as he could into his mouth, chewing twice before swallowing. He finished his bar in no time at all, but the ravenous hunger was still there. There was a tug on his gown.
“You’re pretty hungry, huh?”
Lasko looked down to see Tunnel offering up his unfinished bar with a kind smile on his face. Lasko felt his eyes get a bit teary. What a good kid. He accepted the bar thankfully, and reached a hand out slowly towards Tunnel’s head. The small child flinched backwards slightly, thinking he was about to get a smack; but Lasko’s hand instead patted his head, gently tousling his hair. Tunnel stood rigid, but after no pain came, he relaxed and smiled brightly.
“Thanks,” Lasko said huskily, and began to eat the offered bar.
Sharp watched the whole thing with a conflicted expression, chewing his own bar slowly. Finally, he reluctantly reopened the locker and brought out another bar. Breaking it in half, he gave half to Tunnel, and another half to Lasko.
“You still gotta eat,” he said grumpily to Tunnel, and sat back on his stool.
Tunnel nodded happily, and resumed eating. Lasko began to chew more slowly, trying to make the bar last a little longer. Despite its looks, the bar was quite delicious. The flavor reminded Lasko of gummy bears, except not quite as sweet, and it had a savory fullness to it. The texture wasn’t great though, having the consistency of wet biscuit.
While they ate, Lasko took a closer study of his surroundings. The walls of the hut were packed with various bits of machinery; none of it looked functional. “What is all this stuff?” Lasko waved his arm at the walls.
“This junk?” Sharp scoffed, and didn’t say anything else. Tunnel went to a nearby bit of machinery that was clearly the top half of a humanoid robot. Tunnel shook it hard, the robotic head bouncing back and forth lifelessly.
“It’s all stuff we found” Tunnel said, giggling, throwing the torso and head back onto the pile. “I picked this one up cause it looked fun, but it never turned on, even though we tried to fix it. Sharp thinks it’s too old, so we don’t have enough levels to turn it on. Most first to fourth generation stuff takes too much juice.” He gestured at the wall of abandoned machinery. “All this stuff is too broken or too old. We can’t sell it. So we just leave it here.” He shrugged.
Lasko nodded slowly, pretending that he understood. Secretly though, he pondered the unfamiliar terminology in his head. Generation? Juice? Levels? He shoved the last piece of food into his mouth as he thought. Basically, they’re just hoarding, right?
Finally, the meal was done, and Lasko wiped his fingers on his gown. Not that he needed to; there was no residue from the bar at all. Lasko also didn’t feel thirsty. Somehow the bar had a hydration effect. It was an odd feeling.
Sharp leaned back in his stool, crossing his arms. “Now,” he said. “it’s time for you to talk. Where you from, Lasko?”
Here it comes… Lasko, very seriously, shook his head. “I don’t remember.”
Sharp furrowed his brow.
“Are you from Upper?”
“I don’t know what Upper is. so… I don’t think so.”
Sharp’s brow furrowed further. “You never heard of Upper? Aren’t you a ranker? What are your Thetan levels?”
Fed up, Sharp stood up, going to a nearby pile of devices and broken machinery and rummaged around. He quickly found what he was looking forward and returned with a rectangular device that looked like a calculator.
“Hold this.” Sharp commanded, and grabbed Lasko’s hand, placing the device into his open palm.
Lasko blinked. It was a calculator. Lasko could make out the words, Texas Instruments… Multi-Function: Thetan Level Reader / Calculator, in faded text across the front. Lasko turned it over in his hand examining the back. Made in China, it said in raised lettering.
“Not that way,” Sharp said impatiently.
He turned the device back over and pressed Lasko’s thumb against a metal sensor.
“Doesn’t even know how to use a reader.” The boy muttered.
There was a beep, and the calculator screen lit up. A single digit appeared. 0.
“Zero? Damnit, is it broken?” Sharp pressed his own thumb against the reader.
Beep. Lasko saw a 13 flash on the screen.
“Try it again.” Sharp forcefully handed the calculator back to Lasko.
Obediently, Lasko did as he was told. Beep. Another zero.
“This can’t be right.” They repeated this process several times, with Tunnel also getting a turn, getting a reading of nine. Finally, Sharp sat back down, his head in his hands.
“This damn drooler. He really got no levels.”
Tunnel looked at Lasko with wide, amazed eyes. “Ain’t never seen anybody with no levels before.”
“We got no use for this guy.” Sharp stood up shook his head. “What a waste of five units.”
Tunnel frowned, tilting his head in confusion. “Huh?”
Lasko also looked at Sharp, his feelings mixed. He could guess at what Sharp was going to say next, and he didn’t blame the kid.
“This guy might be from Upper, but he don’t remember. He don’t know anything, about the Gate, about Upper, how to use a reader. Worst of all, he don’t got no thetans! He’s useless. Nobody will want this breathing waste of space.”
Tunnel furrowed his eyebrows, thinking, and then his brightened up as he thought of something. The kid eagerly threw out a suggestion. “He can stay here with us!”
Sharp was already shaking his head no, but Tunnel continued excitedly. “Even though he don’t got no thetans, he can still go picking with us, and help out like he did with the hammer…”
Lasko raised his hands. “I don’t want to cause any trouble-” he started to say, but Tunnel ignored him as well and just got louder.
“We can teach him what he don’t know! He can be our friend.”
“You crazy, Tunnel. This guy ain’t like the stuff we find and fix. He’s a person. And somebody put him in a box and threw him out. If you throw out a machine, maybe it’s broken and old. You throw out a person, it means that its worth about as much as a piece of shi-” Sharp broke off.
Tunnel had fallen silent. His eyes were reddening and his customary smile was nowhere in sight.
Uh oh… Lasko thought. Sharp sighed.
“Nah, not you Tunnel. That last part wasn’t about you.”
Tunnel said nothing, but tears began to run down his face, and he sniffled loudly. He turned and ran out the hut.
“Ah… don’t run, Tunnel!” Sharp pushed past Lasko and ran to the doorway and yelled after the running figure, his voice getting louder and louder as Tunnel got further away.
“I didn’t mean that… Just listen to me for a second… FINE!” Sharp screamed as loud as he could.
In the distance, the figure of the young boy stopped.
Sharp groaned, and finally yelled out unwillingly. “If you come back right now, he can stay with us.”
Tunnel turned around and began sprinting back. Lasko was surprised to see that the tears had not stopped; the skinny boy had an odd expression on his face, excited by the Sharp’s decision, but still crying. The kid had been genuinely hurt by what Sharp had said. Tunnel arrived, breathing heavily, strings of mucus swaying back and forth from his chin.
“He gets to stay, right?” the boy said, panting, and wiping his tears with his sleeve.
“Yeah.” Sharp said curtly. He didn’t look upset anymore. Rather, he looked tired, making the boy seem years older.
“Go get the cart from the hiding place.” Sharp ordered gently. “We gotta return the fixer, and we’ll take the newbie along to meet Leonard.”
Tunnel nodded, and wiped the snot off his chin. He beamed at Lasko, his voice still cracking from crying. “Just wait and see, it’s going to be ranker.”
The kid ran away from the hut, towards one of the nearby hills, in the opposite direction of the Gate. Sharp watched him go, with a complicated expression.
“Hey, I’m sorry that I ended up causing all thi-” Lasko started but Sharp quickly interrupted.
“Shut up and listen.” He didn’t even spare Lasko a glance, still watching the running figure.
“That kid, he likes you. He thinks that you and him are the same.” Sharp’s eyes grew a bit distant. “When he was little, back when I was still in the holdings, I found that kid crying his ass off, alone in the exhaust tunnels near the gate. That’s why he’s called Tunnel. He was too young to be down here on the hex, kids only get dumped down here when they get to be about eight levels. That kid barely tested five levels.”
Lasko was completely quiet, listening intently to Sharp’s story.
The boy continued. “Apparently, he had parents in the Gate.” Sharp glanced at Lasko.
“You don’t seem to know anything about the slums, so I’ll tell you. The rest of us kids don’t got parents. At least, we never knew them. When we’re small, they keep us all together in the Gate for a while, and then later they dump us in the Holdings.”
He returned his gaze to the distant Tunnel, who was now climbing up the hill. “This kid was different than us. Holding kids like me just live for the day when we become rankers, the day we get back into the Gate. But he’s different. He knew how to be happy, even in this place. And he thinks you and him are the same, dropped down here by some people who didn’t want him anymore. But I know better. There’s a difference between some lost kid, and a guy they locked up in a box and dropped down here to rot.”
The distant figure of Tunnel disappeared over the hill, and Sharp finally turned a pair of cold eyes on Lasko. “You don’t know where you come from and who put you in that box. Fine.” The tone of his voice became grim. “But one thing you better know now, if you turn on Tunnel and me, you’re dead.”
The boy looked Lasko in the eye. “You know why my name’s Sharp?”
Before Lasko could respond, Sharp’s hands exploded in a flurry of movement. Lasko saw a shiny flash, and he lifted up his hand reflexively.
He felt a flash of pain and, and watched in shock as blood spurted out of his hand. But Sharp didn’t stop moving, in a swift moment, he had ducked under Lasko’s arm and repositioned himself at Lasko’s unguarded side, stabbing low into the surprised man’s hamstring. Lasko let out a cry of pain, and stumbled away from Sharp, falling to the ground as his cut leg collapsed under his weight.
Sharp walked towards him calmly, taking the narrow baton from his thigh and twisting it. In horror, Lasko helplessly watched as the cylinder extended in both directions four times, forming a narrow pole with a very pointy end. Sharp hefted it in his hand, balancing it. “Wa…wait.” Lasko gasped, but Sharp ignored him, thrusting down viciously.
Lasko closed his eyes, on reflex again, and he felt the thin spear enter his chest and out his back, pinning the man to the ground.
“Aaah..agh!!” The man couldn’t help but scream out in pain, but he bit his lip in fear as Sharp knelt down next to the injured man’s face.
“They call me Sharp because I’m good at cutting.” The young boy said frankly. None of the proud manner that he had exhibited previously appeared in his face now, just a hardened expression. “Don’t cross us. You get it?”
The man nodded painfully.
“Don’t forget.” Sharp stood up and with a swift motion, yanked out the spear, drawing another painful groan from Lasko.
Sharp wiped the spear and knife on Lasko’s gown before sheathing the knife; he retracted the metal spear with another twist, and attached it back on his thigh.
Lasko felt himself growing weaker by the second. His body was not in a good condition. He could feel the hot blood gushing out his back onto the ground; trying to draw breath, he coughed, a mouthful of blood escaping his lips. The critically injured man was about to ask Sharp for help, when he saw the boy take out a familiar looking object from his belt.
“…Hold on.” Lasko tried to say, but it was too late; Sharp’s arm was already on its way down.