The rectangular metal cart rattled further into the Bad Ends. It was just passing the border into ‘Very Bad’. Chuck Marley might as well take advantage of the path being tidied before him.
Inside the sweeper, a small head bobbed up and down. A Sirian down on his luck. The Very Bad Ends were backward – they didn’t have driverless sweepers. At least this meant jobs for Sirian immigrants. Perhaps this was the life he wanted. Idly pulling control levers, head on fist, mind empty. The unsung council worker, making the world a cleaner place.
A couple of steampunks tossed cans of Hyperade into the gutter. They showed no regard for the noble toil of the Sirian.
Marley had a chance to be someone of his own choosing. To shape his purpose and fulfil the desires of an ego that could not be satiated with endless episodes of Little Sister, Lunar Golf, or android companions. He needed the necessary gear to make the Fooolzian Trawler flightworthy. Then he could begin looking for satisfaction and fulfilment: off-world.
The mini-sweeper turned into a side-street. Marley’s nostrils were immediately accosted by the sweet smell of mixed garbage.
These citizens did not have bins. They left their refuse on the footpath insecurely tied in pink plastic bags. Pyramids of rubbish forced Marley to turn off the path onto the street behind the sweeper.
Two common dogs were grappling with the bags, their mouths drooling. One gave a yelp of delight as it tore into the pink film, freeing the contents and scattering a brown liquid over the trousers of a jogger who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A shady figure in a hood leaned inside a doorjamb. He flicked a finished cigarette towards a pile of sacks.
Marley jumped back as the pile whooshed into flames. Someone had thrown away empty kerosene buckets. The garbage crackled and with ominous intensity, ash scattering in the wind. People barely glanced as they passed the worn shop fronts.
Marley left the humming sweeper and turned into a lane. Creative graffiti attracted the eye. A cheeky rat was holding a sign: “We heart the Bad Ends.” Nearby, another black-and-white stencil was cleverly painted behind the stairs of a fire escape. It gave the impression of a real person sitting on the stairs thinking.
Between these pieces, some complicated graffigraphy, colourful and flowing writing, was impossible to read at first sight.
Marley gasped when he succeeded in making sense of the squiggles. “Mr Kibbles!” That’s what it said, surely. He leaned closer and traced the pattern with his hand.
He heard the footsteps of two, maybe three people. A rattling, the sound of a ball bearing in a steel container. He didn’t move. He tried not to give out an aura of tension.
“You like?” A voice behind him.
Marley summoned the courage to breathe. He turned around and was surprised to see someone who looked fairly like him, except tougher. He had the same olive skin hinting at racial mixing. That was where similarity ended. This kid had an upstart confidence as he shifted about, hands in the pockets of his hoodie.
“Yeah. It’s not bad.”
“It’s ok. What do you think Barrel?”
A corpulent guy with a vacant look shrugged. He wore a tight t-shirt, not because he was trying to show any musculature, but because it was obvious nothing would fit him. He had a black beanie and armour shoulder plates. His large belt was studded. Tucked into it was a dull grey handle, hiding what could be a knife, a taser, even a fold up assault rifle.
He rubbed his palm on it and grinned. “It’s not bad. But I like it better like dis.” He shook his spray can and drew a long, thick, dripping yellow line right through the centre.
Marley’s eyebrow twitched.
The third guy wore large bright blue steel-capped boots. His jutting chin sported a diamond goatee. He scratched it with one finger. “Needs more colour.” With a green spray can he drew what mathematicians would call a sine wave. He looked meanly at everything.
To show any kind of fear would invite trouble, so Marley nodded slowly. Then he laughed, quietly at first, but then uproariously. Yawning is contagious, laughter even more so. They laughed with him, uncomfortably, then with more aggression, until finally they were bending over slapping their knees.
The one who looked like Marley karate chopped the air. The trio stopped as one. Except Barrel. He continued laughing, vacantly.
“Shut up Barrel.” The man who ordered Barrel was apparently the leader. He folded his arms. “Where you from?”
“Not from these parts,” Marley said without thinking.
“We got one thing to say to your type.”
Marley smiled weakly.
“This place ain’t ‘these parts’.” The leader squared up. “These parts, you call’em, they’re the ‘Bad Ends’.” He thrust his neck forward.
“And in the Bad Ends we say three things to you types. You know what they are?”
Marley shook his head quickly. “No.”
“No.” The leader raised his arms, palms upwards. “No? Do you know who you’re talking to? You’ll address me as Billyboy, cityboy.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about, Billyboy cityboy.”
“No idea? He has no idea boys.”
The rest of the gang parroted “no” in unison. Except Barrel, who said ‘no’ too many times ruining the effect.
“What are the other two things?” asked Marley.
“No and no!” said Billyboy.
Again they copied him. Again Barrel was out of time.
Their lack of rhythmic coordination emboldened Marley. He stuck his two hands out, second and third fingers apart. Like an apprentice hop hip artist high on Gelsem X, he said: “No, this is the Very Bad Ends, and I’m here for more than a haircut.”
This amused the gang, after they were given permission to laugh.
“Yes Billyboy.” They rubbed their hands in anticipation, waiting only for their leader to give the signal to squash Marley under a pile of fists.
“What are we going to do to Mr Kibble and his cronies?”
“We’re going to smash them up,” said Barrel.
Billyboy backhanded Barrel on the left cheek, as if offended by his lack of sophistication. “We’re better than that.”
“Kibbles owes us,” Martini said, “and we’re going to collect our dues.”
“We don’t need no dues no more,” said Billyboy. “We’re better than that too, aren’t we?”
Martini and Barrel replied in unison. “No!”
“You’re right, we’re not better than that. You heard. If you got anything to do with Mr Kibbles you better be worried man.”
“I’ve got nothing to do with him,” Marley said urgently.
“That’s because he is nothing,” said Billyboy. “And when the day is over he won’t even be nothing. Right Barrel?”
Barrel scratched his head, then shook it. “Right. But how can you be nothing, if you’re already…”
“Shut up Barrel.”
Marley had to know more. He also had to get out of here. “What’s on today?” He looked left and right. People walked by in the adjoining street. They didn’t notice Marley surrounded by the three unsavoury characters. Or they pretended not to notice.
“You really aren’t from the Bad Ends,” said Billyboy half smiling. “Look at anything by Mr Kibble, you’re looking at fook all.”
“Yeah, you may as well be blind, deaf, and…what’s the other one?” said Martini.
“Dumb,” said Barrel, “Boss, when are we going to the exhibition?”
Billyboy looked angrily at Barrel. He turned to Marley. “You didn’t hear anything did you?” He extended his head right up to Marley’s cheek. Marley could feel his breath.
“No, I didn’t even hear nothing,” said Marley.
Martini started flexing his fists. Barrel reached for the featureless grey handle tucked in his belt.
Marley started laughing. Laughing very loudly. The three looked at him strangely and started laughing like before. But not with the same collective enthusiasm.
Marley sprinted. He ran so fast his body could barely keep up with his legs.
Billyboy and Martini were close behind.
Barrel lumbered after.
Marley arrived at the end of the lane. The adrenaline disoriented him. He couldn’t remember if he’d come from the left or the right. He chose the left. He plummeted down the sidewalk, sidestepping a remote-controlled shopping trolley.
Martini and Billyboy weren’t far behind.
Barrel had already given up the chase. But what he had drawn from his belt was not a knife. Or a taser. It was a fold-up assault rifle; though he had second thoughts about using it outside, early afternoon.
Marley darted across the road, narrowly missing the street sweeper, which had turned around to commence its reverse trip. He jumped over a roadside electronics box and down an alley too narrow for cars.
He couldn’t shake off Billyboy or Martini. He could hear their footsteps 50 feet behind.
Martini drew a laser knife. As well being able to cut through barbed wire and birthday cakes, a fully charged laser knife could throw a 25-volt discharge almost 60 feet.
Martini never had a clear sight of Marley. He wasted valuable energy with his shot. A bolt bounced off the wall and clung to a puddle of water Marley had already splashed through two seconds ago. Martini would have to wait up to thirty seconds for his knife to recharge.
Thanks to Baggage Handling 101, Marley could grab things on the fly. He reached for a pot plant sitting just inside a window and tossed it over his head without looking.
Three seconds later he heard what could only have been Billyboy: “Fook!” Billyboy had managed to dodge it.
Not so Martini, who was too close behind his leader to see it. His steel capped boot kicked it mid-stride. The flowerpot rebounded off some jutting brickwork like a football off a goalpost, back into Martini’s shin.
Martini went tumbling, much like the legendary Alfredo in the semi-finals against Real Centauri, winning a penalty and the match. Except Martini had fouled himself.
Seeing his teammates down, Billyboy pursued Marley with renewed speed. Marley’s lack of fitness was starting to tell. Billyboy was 30 feet behind.
He rounded a corner into another thoroughfare without vehicles. Ahead, a mountain of pink garbage bags. There was no automated garbage collection around here, if there was any collection at all. He moved three full bags into the path where his pursuer would follow.
He set off on his last legs, briefly looking behind when he heard Billyboy stumble over the bags. “Fook!”
Marley skipped backward a bit, surveying his fallen foe with a smugness that would have been characteristic, had he been in this position before.
“Watch yourself, cityboy.” Billyboy dragged himself to his feet. “You ain’t seen me for the last time. No no.” He walked back down the alley in search of the fallen Martini and languishing Barrel.
Chuck Marley allowed his half-hearted smile to become full-hearted.
The smile quickly faded as he ran further into the Bad Ends.