The cold steel collar was tight around his neck and chafed painfully as he was shoved forward by long metal rods. He shivered in the frigid air and in fear of what lay ahead, then stumbled and heard shrill laughter at his panic and discomfort. A shrieking riot echoed from around the corner as exuberant tormentors anticipated his approach. Terror tightened his stomach as hot bile burned the back of his throat and his breath grew short. He needed to run, but the collar and rods restrained him.
A needle’s brutal stab below his ear added to his angst, then a numbing chill raced through his body. Breathing slowed, eyes drooped, and the world lost focus and became unreal. He was only property and would dutifully comply with the crowd’s demands.
Oscar grunted and sat up in bed. He was covered in sweat and gasping for breath, and it took several moments to convince himself that the past was gone and he was safe in the present. Memories may not be able to hurt him, but they certainly had the power to trouble his dreams. That particular vision was from long ago when he was first placed on the auction block. He was terrified then, and that fear along with the resentment associated with it still lingered deep within his heart.
Frowning while piecing the fragments of his dream together, he vaguely recalled that an older woman had purchased him as part of a celebration of her daughter’s coming of age. He remembered nothing of that long night, the injection had washed it all away.
He stared up at the window where a pale glow painted the room in blanched shades of gray. After a few calming breaths, he looked down at his sleeping partner and sighed. Just looking at Zoey eased his troubled mind. She had been there at his time of greatest need and helped free him from slavery.
After escaping his cage in the Stocks, Zoey had found and hidden him away. Later, she explained that males were a prized commodity because they made up only a tiny percentage of the population, and street gangs profited on the sale of their reproductive services. He was in danger because an escaped slave was a threat to their business; if just one managed to get away, others would surely follow.
Days later, after the Sisterhood gang’s searches had eased, they fled their territory and made plans to quench his anger through the power of revenge. Overall, it was a strange way to meet his future partner.
He slipped from beneath the covers and sat with his feet resting on the chilly floor. The air was cool enough to be unpleasant, so he pulled on a pair of black trousers and boots then donned a slate gray shirt. In the toilet-room, he shaved and washed his face, then attempted to straighten his unruly collar-length black hair. He slowed his breathing while staring into the mirror at his pale blue eyes, then, finally composed, he smiled. “Just another day in paradise.”
Back in the main room of their flat, he went to the kitchen and brewed a pot of tea. He then took his cup and walked to the open window and looked out at their world, which was known as Valor.
The view from their fifth-floor apartment in Tower-2 was less than spectacular. A smoky haze partly obscured the axis lights along the center of their cylindrical universe, and the pungent smell of the air was reminiscent of unwashed bodies. The breeze through the window seemed more sluggish than usual, perhaps another ventilation fan had failed.
A huge black circle occupied most of the far wall, and a second identical circle was on the opposite end of the cylinder. Zoey said that pictures were once displayed on them, but they had been dark for so many generations that no one noticed them anymore.
Below him lay the Shambles, neighborhoods of dirty streets lined with graffiti-covered buildings that ran the length and circumference of their world. Roads lined with vacant apartments and failed businesses arced up the curved floor until they were finally overhead, where Tower-1 hung directly above him. If he looked up, he might see upside-down people casually going about their daily chores. The view was completely normal, it had always been this way; all of existence was contained within a barrel that was eight kilometers long and two kilometers in diameter.
Their universe would soon come to an end, that was an undeniable truth. The air was bad and was getting worse every day, and the hydroponic gardens were dying; food rationing would be necessary within the next year and he expected riots when that occurred. The birthrate was also dropping; only about three-hundred people were left in the world. Zoey told him that most boy babies either died during pregnancy or soon after birth, and now males made up only twenty percent of the population. That problem was getting worse as their numbers continued to fall. When the last man died, extinction would surely follow.
When the issue was first discovered, males were cherished and coveted, but soon became viewed as possessions. The difference between being a precious commodity and a captive wasn’t as great as anyone hoped, and the slave trade began. As a result, he had never known his mother because she had sold him to the Sisterhood gang soon after birth. He had grown up in the Stocks, which were rooms filled with cages on the cold uppermost floors of Tower-1.
Oscar shook his head in an attempt to dispel unpleasant memories and thoughts of the inevitable end of their world. He had done the best he could in a bad situation. After escaping slavery, he had formed a gang called the ‘Freedmen’ to rival that of his former owners, and in the war that followed he had taken nearly half of their territory. He had liberated many of their slaves, and his gang and reputation had grown.
It had been quite an achievement to capture the streets and businesses below him, where his people, male and female alike, lived as equals. He glanced up at his enemy’s domain that hung on the curved wall above him, vowing that he wasn’t through. One day he would kill Hazel and defeat her Sisterhood gang, and then he would control all of Valor. Could the grand dreams of an escaped slave ever come to fruition? With a little luck and a lot of work, maybe.
Jack could be a problem though. The fallen god, the robot that was once the voice and mind of Valor was generally ignored and despised but was still powerful enough to warrant caution. Jack had once said that their world, Valor, was spinning, but it certainly didn’t seem so. If it were true, wouldn’t everyone be dizzy? Instead, everyone stuck to the curved floor as they always had. Maybe Jack had gone crazy or was telling a joke.
Slender tan arms suddenly wrapped around his waist and the warmth of his partner’s body pressed against him from behind. “Good morning.”
“G’ morning to you too.” He smiled; Zoey’s touch always calmed and cleared his mind. “Sleep ok?”
“Yes.” His partner, dressed in dark blue pants and shirt, slipped to the side and looked him in the eye. Her light brown skin, clear blue eyes, and softly coiled black hair still took his breath away. “Did you have bad dreams?”
“Maybe so.” He tried to smile.
“You talk in your sleep. Will your nightmares ever end?”
“They get weaker, thanks to you,” he said. “Today is our anniversary.” He set his teacup on the window sill, then turned to place his hands on her shoulders and leaned forward to touch his forehead to hers.
Tears gently wet her cheeks as they did a year ago when they went through the partnership ceremony. “I will care only for you, love only you, and keep only you,” she whispered.
“You will forever own my body and soul. I belong only to you,” he responded.
“I hate that.” Zoey stepped back and angrily wiped her tears away. “You’re not my property.”
“Sure-sure, but this is our world. Can’t fight it, just gotta live with what is.”
“Hah, the world is a mess.” She gestured toward the window. “Look out there. The air stinks and makes me sick sometimes. Food is short now, and if it gets worse there’ll be riots.” She shook her head. “Once, a long time ago, lots of people lived here. Men and women were in equal numbers and treated each other well. Now there are so few males that you’re rented out for profit. These are awful times.”
“You know lots of things that I don’t.”
“That’s another problem of our world; only females go to school and males are only used for fun and to make babies.”
“And the dope they use to keep us workin’ makes us sick.”
“It shortens your life too.”
“Life in the Stocks is hard, so short is good,” he stated. “But now I’m ok; thanks to you I been free for nearly two years.”
“It was a happy day when I found you. I’ve loved you since the first time we were together.” She sighed. “But dreams of your old life still bother you, don’t they?”
“As long as you’re here, I’m fine,” he lied.
The Sisterhood gang had sold the services of their slaves for generations. The men were constantly disparaged and diminished, and this had gone on for so long that most of them believed they were worth less than females and didn’t deserve respect or a good life. Their enslavement had become more than physical, it was psychological as well.
Deep down he was angry and filled with a gnawing need for revenge. At times, while lying in bed, a hunger for the blood and suffering of those that had harmed him kept him from sleep. In those moments, his skin tingled with desire for the painful deaths of Hazel and everyone she cared for. Zoey counseled that he shouldn’t let anger and the need for vengeance rule his life, and he agreed, but knew that only bloody resolution could release him.
It was certain that Hazel felt the same rancor toward him. With his escape, she had not only lost face among her followers but had less income because he had taken some of her slaves with him. Still, he was sure that the true heart of her rage was that he had killed her mother, Esther, during his getaway.
He smiled at that memory but was certain that she would attack one day, seeking vindication. Hazel’s stated aim was to kill him and force those he had freed back into slavery. Her threat was troubling because his gang was still small, but he did have many male fighters that were highly motivated and stronger than the Sisterhood’s female counterparts. The odds were against him, but maybe, if the war could be held off long enough for his gang to grow, they would survive Hazel’s attack and perhaps even triumph.
“What’s on the docket today?” Zoey asked.
“Huh,” he grunted while pulling his sightless gaze away from the graffiti-covered buildings and dirty streets below. “A bar owner down in the Shambles was hassled by some of Hazel’s girls. So, I gotta deal with that and set it right.”
“You’ll go after the Sisterhood over this?”
“Yeah, I gotta. If I don’t, Hazel will think I’m weak and come at us all the harder.”
“So, what will you do?”
“First, talk to Patti, the bar owner, and set things right. I’ll leave some of our people there to guard her place, then meet with my advisors down at the office to plan how, where, and when we hit back.”
“I’m your number one, so I’ll be there,” Zoey stated.
“Yeah. While I’m at Patti’s place, go get Lydia and tell the rest to meet me at the office down by the old park.”
“Ok, we’ll see you there.”
“Robot Jack is gonna stop by too, probably after you get there,” he said.
“Don’t know. Old Jack, he just doesn’t get that he’s not a king anymore. Still thinks he’s a big shot and acts like we gotta do what he says.”
“What does he want?”
He shrugged. “Jack’s always talkin’ about how we shouldn’t fight, but that doesn’t matter much. Death is coming for us all; we’ll either kill each other, or Valor will fail and we’ll all starve, that’s just gonna happen and it doesn’t matter what an old robot thinks or says."
Outside their apartment door, Oscar swung his metal cudgel over his shoulder and walked across the balcony to look over the low balustrade. The interior space of the building was expansive and was probably impressive once, but now the walls and floors were cracked, chipped, and showed the dark scars of uncounted wars.
Light fixtures still hung on the walls, but only a few worked, and even those that did, flickered eerily, painting the walls and floors with dancing specters. Valor was dying, the ancient technology that made life possible was failing, and the rate of collapse was increasing. If humanity didn’t kill itself through sheer petulance, their universe would put an end to them on its own.
He trotted down the stairs, checking the pair of knives on his belt while tapping his cudgel on the floor and walls as he passed vacant apartments on empty floors. The entire building was abandoned except for himself and Zoey within their fifth-floor rooms. He had chosen to live there as a symbol of his freedom and victory over Hazel and her Sisterhood gang. Life was difficult and inconvenient within the tower though; the air was cold and thinner on the upper floors and the smell of it was much worse than at street level. Still though, living there was a statement; Hazel lived on the fourth-floor of Tower-1, so he lived on the fifth level of Tower-2. He would not let that bitch best him at anything.
Bubby was eagerly waiting at the bottom of the stairs and rushed to greet him. “Bubby happy to see Oscar.” The meter-wide robotic spider bounced side to side on his eight legs as his voice buzzed from somewhere deep within him. Bubby’s burnished silver body was mostly featureless with the exception of a pair of cartoonish eyes that Oscar had painted when he was a boy.
“I’m happy to see you too.” He stroked the top of Bubby’s body and the mechanical bug purred contentedly. While still a slave, he had lived alone in a small cell beside others like himself that were only brought out to be rented and used. Back then Bubby was his only friend and had helped him break the lock on his cell door and escape that hellish life.
“Where we go today, Oscar?” Bubby asked.
“We gotta see a lady on Main-2,” he replied. Main-1 and Main-2 were wide streets that ran longitudinally and bisected the cylinder by passing through the tower buildings. The narrower roads that ran lengthwise along the wall were numbered L-1 through L-10. The avenues that wrapped the circumference of the drum were numbered C-1 to C-12.
“Bubby come too?”
“Of course, I’ll never go anywhere without you.”
“Bubby happy. We go now?”
“Sure-sure.” They walked out of the tower through the open entry. According to Zoey, large doors had once protected the interior of the building, but sometime during Valor’s quarrelsome history they were broken and lost.
After trotting down a series of wide steps and walking across an open courtyard, they began their short hike along Main-2. The two-story structures that lined each side of the street were punctuated by the scars of war, mottled by countless dirty handprints down low, and stained a filthy yellow by the air pollution above.
Occasionally the buildings were tagged with the sigil of long-forgotten gangs, the oldest of which, Zoey had informed him, were three ancient ‘R’ letters linked in a circle. Those signs of gang ownership were faded into near invisibility and often overwritten by more recent symbols of dominance; street gangs had ruled Valor for a very long time.
Patti’s bar was a wide storefront on the busiest street in his territory. It was a prime location that needed protection, but was far enough away from Hazel’s district that it should have been safe. Why had his enemy sent her goons so deep into his turf? It had been a deliberate choice, perhaps to draw him out.
Oscar rested his cudgel on his shoulder while looking up at the dark windows of empty apartments that overlooked the street. Was he walking into a trap? He should have brought along more of his people.
Affecting a casual demeanor, he strolled to the bar entrance, tapped lightly on the door frame with his weapon, then walked inside. Patti sat at a table, playing cards with three of her bouncers; all were large and formidable-looking women, while five more members of her security force, which included three muscular older men, stood watching from behind the bar.
Confidence will often end problems before they start, so he smiled. “Hey Patti, long time since I’ve seen you, yeah?”
Patti was a stout older woman with short white hair and a scar on her right cheek that extended from the edge of her eye down to her jawline. “Sure-sure,” she replied with a scowl. “Not seen you for a long while. You up in that tower humpin’ your woman, she keeps you busy, yeah?”
“Maybe so.” He chuckled. “But I’m here now. What happened?”
“Hazel’s partner Alva came with a couple of her goons. They started some shit, broke my chairs, and scared customers away.”
He squinted at Patti’s bouncers. “And your people didn’t stop them?”
“Shouldn’t have to, I give you plenty to keep me safe.” She shook her head. “Shoulda knew better than trust a man to do a woman’s work, that ain’t never gonna work.”
“You worry too much old woman. And being in my territory brings men to your place, so you get more customers.” He frowned, then glanced back at the barroom doorway. “Why did Alva come here? Your bar is a long way from Sisterhood turf.”
Patti nodded. “I dunno, to get your attention maybe?”
“Maybe so,” he replied. “Hazel’s up to something, so I’ll put a few people here to watch and guard your place, is that ok with you?”
Patti grinned. “Sure-sure. Maybe you send young and pretty men that make my customers happy, that’s good for business.”
He laughed. “We’ll see.”
Zoey waited outside with Lydia and her partner Cyrus.
“You handled that well,” Lydia said. She was a tall pale woman with long curly red hair. “But you’re not putting my man into that nest of predators.”
“I can handle myself.” Cyrus had olive-colored skin and was only slightly taller than his partner, but he was strong and carried a cudgel similar to Oscar’s.
“They’ll eat you up,” Lydia said with a grin. “And I don’t share.”
“I’ll get someone else down here, don’t worry,” Oscar responded. “Not a male though, hazard duty means extra pay, yeah?”
Zoey laughed. “I’m surprised you got out of there in one piece.” She turned to the abandoned apartment building behind her, then waved her arm. “It wasn’t a trap. Everyone, come on out!”
“You were worried?”
“Of course,” she responded.
“Oscar safe. Bubby protects,” the large metallic spider said as he joined them.
Zoey reached out and stroked the top of Bubby’s silver body. “I know, but I wanted to be sure.”
“Why did Hazel send her people here?” Cyrus asked.
“I was thinking about that too,” Oscar said. “She’s up to something.”
“What though?” Lydia asked.
“Hazel wants me dead or back in chains.”
“Me too, and the rest of the men that got out with you.” Cyrus sighed. “I’ll die before goin’ back to that life.”
“Yeah.” He nodded. “I can’t let her get away with this, so we’ll strike back hard.”
“What will you do?” Cyrus asked.
“Pain is the only language Hazel knows,” he said. “So, that’s what we’ll give her, but we gotta be smart ‘cause the Sisterhood is too big for us to fight head-on.” He turned to Lydia. “Get the council together and bring them to my office. We’ll sort it out there.”