For anyone interested in seeing what it's about.... here's the cover and the first few chapters...
Callen sat on a moulded plastic bench positioned at the far end of a long corridor. It was a cold, empty corridor in the centre of the Family Administration Agency. He watched his feet swing back and forth, but his mind was riveted on what was going on behind the large double doors in front of him.
Leona and Jonathan Carrus were on trial as parents of Callen, their seven year old boy. They had spent the morning trying to convince the Judge they were close to developing a new compound that would help reverse their business fortunes.
“I don’t understand why I’m looking at all this technical data,” the Judge said, his frustration towards the speed of the trial starting to show.
Leona and Jonathan’s Lawyer stubbornly continued his argument.
“We are demonstrating, Your Honour, the potential for a breakthrough. Every person in this city carries a crystal containing their personal scan. Every person,” he emphasised. “That’s almost ninety million potential clients.”
The judge was losing patience.
“We are dealing with a very simple question of wealth. The defendants no longer meet the requirements and their son is not yet nine years old, so he’s eligible for reassignment. Is there anything else I should be considering?”
The Judge’s duty was a grave one. But his decision was delivered for the greater good of the community. Within the city the average life expectancy was one hundred and thirty years and the longevity of life had caused overcrowding. New lives were at a premium. Each one had to be carefully assigned to those best suited to provide and raise a child. Countless couples were waiting for a child of their own, and their businesses were flourishing, not going backwards.
While the Judge knew of the pain his decision would cause in the short term, he remained convinced he was working for the greater good of all those who lived within the city’s walls.
“Callen Carrus is to be taken from his parents and reassigned immediately to a new eligible couple who meet the financial requirements.” The hammer fell. The decision was final.
Leona wept uncontrollably. Tears streamed down her face. Jonathan sat beside her. For the first time in his life he did nothing to comfort his wife when she needed comfort. They had just lost their son. When they were granted the right to have Callen their business was going from success to success. Now, here they were, less than a decade later, listening to a judge destroy their lives - their family.
As a guard came and stood behind Leona and Jonathan, the Judge looked to them.
“Your son is to be escorted from this building. You are to have no further contact with him and no record of his existence with you is to remain. If you try to contact the boy in any way, you will be charged and face a sentence of fifteen years incarcerated public service. Do you understand?”
Leona sobbed as she nodded. Jonathan hardly moved.
“Yes”, he said without ever taking his eyes off the Judge. They had no choice but to accept that Callen was no longer their son.
A neat woman with a painted smile entered the far end of the corridor. She walked directly towards Callen. Her conservative skirt and button down blouse sung of her position within the government and try as Callen might to ignore her approach, he couldn’t.
“Callen”, she said from about half way down the hall. “Come with me, please”.
“I’m waiting for my parents. They’re in there”, he said pointing to the door in front of him.
“No, they’re not sweetheart. Come on, I’ll explain everything”.
Callen looked to the women. She was trying her best to look like a friend. She held out a hand, her delicate fingers extended. Callen jumped up from his seat and ran at the large doors to the courtroom. He pulled hard on the handles but hardly managed to move them. The doors were locked. Callen cried out.
In the courtroom Leona and Jonathan tensed to the sound of Callen’s cries. They reached for each other’s hands and squeezed tight. Legally their son was now someone else’s concern.
Callen was led away down the long corridor. He struggled hard, but the dissenting seven year old proved little problem to his practised escort. At the end of the corridor a door swung shut behind them. The ensuing silence made a mockery of the extreme drama that had played out along the hard polished floor.
Callen sat in an empty room, the third room he’d been asked to wait in already this day, not including the corridor where his nightmare began. Every now and then someone would come and talk through legal protocol, but Callen’s head was swimming with information and he’d rather pretend he agreed than try to fully understand what was happening. The wheels of administration wrapped the red tape around him and his seven years of experience were hardly adequate to keep up with the many stages the law seemed to be guiding him through. All he knew for sure was that his parents were not with him and he was expected to accept they would never be with him again.
His mind protested the fact. He remembered the lessons about families at school. The icy cold fear of every child surrounded him. He wasn’t going to let it happen. He wouldn’t submit himself to being reassigned and he didn’t care who his new parents were, he’d never accept them.
Finally, late in the day, Callen was collected by a young man who took him to a dormitory. He was assigned a bed within a plastic moulded room. Here he’d wait until tomorrow, when his new parents would arrive to take him home. Callen said nothing. He didn’t want anyone knowing the thoughts he was having. When the reassignment was finalised, he’d go with his new parents and play at being a dutiful son. At the first opportunity he’d be away to find his old home and his real parents.
Callen took a long time to fall asleep. As he lay in darkness his mind drifted and fell upon the memory of a holiday taken beyond the city walls, to a sister city by the beach. He’d watched the in flight viewer showing magnified images of the barren land they were passing over. He watched riveted with his family as they saw movement far below. One of the ‘outlocked’ living a poor excuse for a life in the exiled wastelands, far removed from the modern privileged lives being lead within the City’s walls.
As Callen lay in his bed trying desperately not to think of his reassignment, this memory helped ease his mind and induce sleep. At the time the sight of that one outlocked scavenger, so far below, terrified him and made it impossible to enjoy any part of his holiday. Callen recalled the hotel where they stayed and that first night when his dreams wouldn’t let go of that scavenger. His parents came to him to help ease the many frightening thoughts he was having: What if they were cut off while on holiday? What if they were overrun by the Outlocked? He woke up his parents with these alarming thoughts. They took him in their arms and held him tight, assuring him such things could never happen. That memory, of being nursed in his parent's arms almost four years before, finally gave Callen the peace he needed to fall asleep.
Come morning, he was woken early and taken to a shower where he was rudely scrubbed by a woman wearing rubber gloves and an apron. The task left him humiliated, but more was to follow. He was taken, still naked into a doctor’s surgery. There was no colour at all in any of the rooms. Not the room he slept in, not the shower room, not this new room. A doctor entered, she too was dressed in white to match the room. Callen stood shivering, not from cold, but nerves. The doctor was a young woman and she went about her business with great routine. Measurements and checks were made of Callen without a word of explanation. At the end of the examination the doctor sat behind a desk and scribbled on a file.
“You’re a very fit young boy. You’re going to make some lucky parents a wonderful son.” The doctor closed the file and left the room.
The door to the room remained open and Callen hid behind it peering out. Had everyone forgotten he was naked?
The women, who had scrubbed him down, re-entered and took him by the hand. Callen had had enough.
“Can I have some clothes?!”
The woman looked at him in astonishment, almost as if the request was a strange one.
“You’re about to get a whole new wardrobe if you’d just be a little patient.”
Callen gave in and walked with the large women as she navigated the hallway. There was no-one else walking by to see him, something he was extremely grateful about. Another room waited; another white room. He sat on a cold plastic bench moulded into the wall. His hands stayed fast to his lap. The women in white left him alone. Callen looked around the room. It was unremarkable. His nerves were frayed, his emotions frantic. The door reopened and Callen tensed up. Who now? The women in white re-entered. She wheeled in a plastic cage. Callen stared at it. All he could think of was that he was to be placed in this cage and wheeled around on parade.
“What’s that for?” he asked nervously.
“For you,” she said.
The women swung open a door and revealed clothes. The cage was a wardrobe now displaying, shoes, socks, underpants, pants, shirts and jumpers.
“These are all yours. Paid for by the Helfners.”
Callen had never heard of this organisation.
“Your parents.” She explained.
Callen stared motionless. In one day his entire life had been turned upside down and shaken. The women left the room and Callen quickly went to the cage to dress. He searched for his favourite labels and finished looking like a mannequin in a department store, displaying the unmistakable creases that new clothes hold.
The door to the room was still open and the moment Callen was happy with his appearance, he walked through it. One step into the adjoining white corridor he came face to face with the women in white.
“Good, you’re finished,” she said. “We’ll get all the other clothes sent around to your home some time later today. Your Mum and Dad are waiting for you. I think they’re a little excited.”
Callen had been doing his best to remain brave, but the mention of two strangers now being called his ‘mum and dad’ was too much to handle and he broke down in tears. Within seconds, Callen was a sniffling, snorting, hyperventilating mess. His need for air produced a louder cry when he breathed in than when he was actually crying. The women in white showed compassion; it was hard to tell if she was responding to the harshness of Callen’s experience, or simply because the tears of a seven year old reached her heart.
She hugged him close until his tears stopped.
“You have to be brave about this. The Helfners are going to love you very much. You’re a lucky young man.”
“I don’t want new parents. I want to go home to my real mum and dad.”
This statement threw the woman. She didn’t know how to react.
“You’re seven years old, aren’t you?”
“Surely you’ve been taught about families at school? You must know how people have children?”
Callen went silent. He did know. He’d been remembering those lessons he’d been taught since this nightmare began. He could virtually recite every word he’d ever been told about the subject, but that didn’t make it any easier to accept. After a moment he reluctantly nodded that he understood. The woman showed relief. Had he not known, for whatever reason, she could have been facing quite an awkward situation. She moved quickly, brushing a few stray fibres from Callen’s new clothes as she tried to encourage his recovery.
“See if you can’t cheer yourself up a little. Your new parents don’t want their first sight of you to be in tears.”
Callen ran the back of his hand across his eyes.
“Good, boy. Now let’s put a smile on that face and go and meet your new mummy and daddy.”
Callen was led away through another door into a room of colour. A room of synthetic seats and viewer screens. A room of sound and activity. Raegher and Annie Helfner sprang to their feet as their number was called. They threw their arms open and hugged Callen as if he was a long lost son, which, in a way, he was. Callen suffered the smothering without a word. There was little else he could do.
The trip home was uneventful. Both Raegher and Annie were nervous and couldn’t stop telling him all their plans. They could have been talking about revolution for all Callen knew. He kept nodding and changing his focus from one to the other, all the time watching the passing streets. He was desperately trying to map the direction of his old neighbourhood. The Helfner’s unit was almost two hours drive from the administration buildings. By the time they arrived Callen’s head was spinning with landmarks and turns taken and all the while the incessant chatter continued.
On their arrival at the Helfner’s home Callen was shown straight to his new room. The walls were bright yellow. A bright blue bed with bright red cupboards set them off. A mobile of the solar system hung from the light and as the planets rotated, so did the coloured lights they gave off. Callen was overcome with the vibrant room. He sat on the bed and the Helfners retreated to prepare for their first dinner together. Callen began planning when and how to leave this new and unfamiliar family behind.
Dinner was a feast. Everything any seven year old could want. Largely synthetic, but far more nourishing than anything natural. The ham and vegetables were a forerunner to the sweets. An ice cream pie with a crust of chocolate biscuit all covered in fudge so thick it stopped running as it cooled. Callen’s appetite had not suffered at all during the past twenty four hours and he happily had a third helping of desert to the delight of his new parents.
In bed, he was visited and kissed on the forehead no less than three times, before Annie and Raegher finally turned in for the night. Callen waited a good hour, desperately keeping his focus so as not to fall asleep. When he thought the time was right, he silently inched down the hall to find his new parents, they were sound asleep. Back to his room, he rummaged quietly in his wardrobe. He located a back pack perfect for what he had in mind. He loaded the bag with all the clothes he thought he might need, which really wasn’t much, and he left the room.
Quietly he navigated the stairs, stopping only at the kitchen to add some easily carried food to his load. He walked to the door and opened it. He rode the lift to the ground floor and slid out into the night. He was away, on a journey to find the parents he loved and refused to leave. Everything was going perfectly. He’d have the whole night to get a head start on those looking for him.
The building’s alarm wailed to life. A flashing light above the door lit the surrounding buildings with its intermittent piercing blue light. Callen couldn’t believe he’d missed something so obvious – the alarm! He turned and ran. His plan would remain the same - the only thing altered by the oversight was his head start.
Callen ran and ran. Past the prefabricated buildings that stretched as far as the eye could see. Past the communal park designated to the area. He headed for the transport stations. If he could just make it to an underground carriageway, he’d be whisked out of the neighbourhood and could relax. The streets were all clean, the buildings were all similar. It was hard to keep his bearings as he ran. As he rounded another corner he came to an abrupt halt, worried that he’d travelled the road before. He hadn’t. A solitary splash of colour on a nearby wall, gave the street an unknown identity, again he started to run.
Beads of sweat formed on his brow. By his reckoning, the whole world was after him and he had to keep moving as fast as he could. He also knew the stories from the playground that a reassigned child was never treated the same again after they’d made an attempt to escape back to their previous life. Callen was determined to make this attempt successful. He knew he wouldn’t have another opportunity any time soon.
He was unaware of how little danger he was actually in. While the Helfners may have alerted the authorities, only those with the specific brief to track him down would ever pose any threat to him. Youth had become a symbol of prosperity. Children had become the new elite, an aristocratic class; revered and powerful in their own right by nothing more than association. The city housed many millions and less than ten percent would ever rise to be successful enough to be allowed a single child in their lifetime. The criteria to qualify were wealth and power, so any child had to be associated with a family of considerable standing. To cause distress to a child, to impede, to interfere in any way, was to ask for someone with power to step in and take an interest. Given Callen’s age, the crowds literally parted in front of him. Few gave him more interest than a stare of curiosity. He was obviously heading somewhere and no one wanted to slow him down in any way.
As he ran, Callen took little notice of the city around him. To him it was unremarkable. He’d lived his Seven years, taking all the technology and infrastructure for granted. It existed and he lived with it. Nothing seemed to impress him about it, nor did it impress any of his young friends or the countless hordes that called it home. The only people truly impressed by the way the city lent itself to modern life were the elderly. Anyone over the age of one hundred could remember when the world they lived in was new. They remembered how they’d marvelled at every new building as it was moulded from indestructible plastics and clicked into place as the pieces came together. They marvelled at the climate control systems that gave them perfect weather and mirrored their regimented lives.
The pollution problem had long been solved with pipes that took the city’s exhausts and sent them into the wilderness. Wealth was accounted for by a tally of debits and credits recorded on a microscopic chip worn on band around a person’s wrist. To flash this across a scanner recorded the transaction and adjusted the balance. To remove the band, made the contents irredeemable and only the chemical signature of the owner, given off in a normal relaxed state, could validate it again.
Those eating at local cafes on the sidewalk watched Callen pass. They made no attempt to find out where he was running to. It would have been novel to think, in less enlightened times a Seven year old running in desperation down a main street close to midnight would have raised more concern. Tonight it barely brought a sideways glance.
Callen was looking for darkness and he thought he’d found it in the park. A long thin stretch of artificial grass, bushes and trees, that lay between two lines of large multi storeyed apartment houses. Every foot of every park was assigned in accordance with the number of people living in the area. The single light in the park shone out and the trees provided a canopy that gave Callen some momentary security. For the first time in almost an hour Callen stopped running. He slumped down and lay on his back on the cool imitation grass. He gained his breath quickly and within a minute or two was able to sit quietly and look around. To one side of the park was a small lake. He could see the bushes that surrounded it. This would be the perfect place to hide. He moved to the bushes and stopped suddenly. A strange noise could be heard; someone in pain. Callen took tiny steps towards the bushes. The noises became louder and his curiosity pushed him further and made him forget about his own escape.
With one more step, Callen was as close as he dared. He raised his hand and inserted it between the long slender leaves of the bush in front of him, moving them out of his line of sight. What he saw shocked and confused him. On the shiny resin rocks that formed the surround of the lake, nestled deep amongst the bushes and well out of sight of anyone, lay two naked teenagers: a boy, maybe seventeen years old and a girl about the same age. Their clothes were nearby on the ground in no particular order and their bodies were entwined. Their skin beaded with sweat, set off like small fluid crystals against the moonlight. The young girl was on her back, with the boy on top of her. Callen watched in awe. He knew what he was watching from talk he’d heard amongst his friends. Callen wasn’t sure what to do. The couple could be exiled from the city or incarcerated for most of their lives for what they were doing. If Callen didn’t report them and this was discovered, he could be arrested as well. The young lovers continued until slowly they came to rest. They breathed heavily and went quite still, lying by each other as if sleeping. Finally they laughed, enjoying their moment together. Callen went to move. He caught his foot on a lower branch as he backed away. The bush shivered into the silent night and the couple suddenly sat bolt upright, staring at the bush. They were looking straight at Callen who froze behind the bush. The boy went to his clothes and quickly did up his pants. From his jacket he took a shinning blade, it kissed the moonlight with a ray of reflected light. Callen could not move now if he wanted to. The young girl began to dress as the boy took steps, one by one, bringing him closer. Callen trembled in fear. The boy circled, desperately searching the leaves for whatever made the bush shudder. His shaking hand gave away his mood. His bare feet took slow but sure steps on the smooth resin floor. His damp naked torso a backdrop to the glittering blade held aloft.
He stopped dead, staring straight into Callen’s eyes through a gap in the leaves. Callen jumped up to run, but the boy was too quick and with a scream from Callen and a bold yell from the young boy Callen was roughly pushed to the ground.
“Do it”, said the girl now almost fully clothed.
“He’s a kid”, said the boy, firmly holding Callen to the ground with the blade gripped menacingly near his neck.
“He saw us. You know what that means if he tells someone?”
“I don’t think he’s going to.”
As he spoke the young boy motioned with the knife to Callen’s pants. A wet spot had appeared and was growing like the boundaries of a victorious country at war. Callen was shaking all over.
“He’s not going to be too scared to tell tomorrow.”
The young boy thought about the point his girlfriend was making. Slowly he turned his head to Callen. The two stared at each other for a moment, until the young boy spoke.
He raised the knife and brought it down hard towards Callen’s chest.
Callen reacted with a reflex out of fear and he jerked to avoid the knife. It wasn’t enough to escape the blade completely, but it was enough to save his life. The knife dug into his skin to the side of his rib cage. A rib guided the blade away from its intended mark. Callen cried out and kicked with pain. The boy with the knife recoiled back in shock at the unexpected defence. There was blood on the knife and Callen’s shirt was witness to the fact the knife had pierced his skin. He lurched in pain, throwing the young attacker off balance. Callen got to his feet and began to run. He ran holding his side and headed directly for the light of the nearby street. Being caught for running away from the Helfners now seemed like his best option. The young attacker took off after Callen, his steps getting closer and even the adrenalin charge of saving his life wasn’t enough to help Callen’s seven year old legs outrun his pursuer. He yelled out. He didn’t direct it at anyone, he simply yelled, screaming for help. The teenager in pursuit, stopped. In an instant he turned and ran in the opposite direction. His girlfriend was quick to follow and the park swallowed them up in darkness. Callen continued to cry out until he reached the road. He turned and showed surprise that his attacker had given up the chase. He was met with a sea of faces; some out walking, some from nearby restaurants, spilling onto the sidewalk, and some peering over balconies from the apartments above. To aid a youngster asking for help had its rewards and everyone was suddenly keen to offer assistance.
Callen looked around and stared into the deserted park. His hand was on his side, covering the blood trickling down inside his shirt. A woman noticed.
“This boy’s hurt.”
Callen looked to his side and removed the pressure of his hand from his wound. The shirt was shinny, wet with blood.
“Oh, my God,” said another women with the well pronounced vowels and expensive clothes.
“Child, you need help.”
Callen put his hand back to his side and winced. The two women took hold of him. Callen kicked one in the shin.
“Owwww! You little shit!” she screamed. Her vowels lost their expensive cloak.
Callen ran from them both. The crowd, which had gathered to see what was going on, once again parted before him and he was back to running as fast as her could. He still thought the carriage system was his best option. If he could just make it to the underground lines he could slip off at a station and find some safety in the darkness of the tunnels that ran below the city. There he could rest, tend to his wound properly and wait until it had stopped bleeding. All he wanted was a place to hide and work out what to do without having to worry about anyone interfering with his plans.
Callen ran as if he had a bad stitch. Occasionally he winced at the pain from his side, but he was determined to keep going. He hadn’t come this far and endured this much to give up now. When he finally reached the station he stood at the entrance and realised he had another problem. When he was taken from his parents and placed with the Helfners his credit band was taken. He had no credit to purchase a ticket. He watched commuters come and go. There seemed to be no way for him to get though the electronic gates without setting off the guard’s alarm. With so much at stake the last thing he needed was to be arrested for fare avoidance.
He sat on one of the seats nearby and tried to come up with a solution. He couldn’t think of anything. He used the public toilet and rung out his shirt as best he could. He took some micro-thread towel and fashioned a poor bandage from it, before laying it across his wound. The wound was doing more than weeping. It was bleeding and Callen was in two minds about pushing on or turning himself in. He decided once a bandage of towelling was in place and his shirt was done up and dried he’d spend some more time searching for a way onto the carriage system. If he couldn’t solve the problem, he’d go back to the Helfners to be tended to. He sat down on a bench and began to think of how to solve his dilemma - sleep got in his way as his head wilted to rest on the back of the high moulded bench and he finally escaped, this time to dream.
The sun had come up. A blue sky and high white clouds spotted in irregular patterns and projected onto the underside of the UV curtain made for the perfect day. It was exactly twenty five degrees. The weather bureau saw to that. Callen was woken by the sounds of commuters passing nearby on their way into the station. He woke himself properly, paying little attention to any of those passing, until a group of around twenty school children, all in casual clothes, came down the far ramp. One teacher accompanied them and barked orders. They were about Callen’s age and almost as an impulse he jumped onto the end of the group, walking calmly amongst them towards the entry gate. The teacher ran the school’s credit bracelet back and forth over the scanner. As Callen approached he held his breath. The red light went green. He was through and he followed his adopted classmates down onto the station platform.
Getting lost from the class was little trouble. Callen made a casual wander to the platform level toilets and took up residence in one of the cubicles. The children’s voices continued to drone out on the platform, until the whirring rush of the carriages approached from down the long darkened tunnel. The carriages stopped, exhaled and then inhaled with a clatter and a hiss. The voices of the young children became muffled as the doors closed them in for their journey. The carriages strained and then purred their way to a speed that generated the familiar sound of the windy express. All that was left was the distant rumble moving away and the sharp metronomic footsteps from departing commuters heading up the ramp towards daylight.
Callen walked out onto the deserted platform. He looked right and left and saw no-one. For the first time in hours he felt more at ease. Now what? Across the platform on the wall facing him was the ten foot smiling face of a woman with perfect hair and teeth: her beauty secret, pro elastin-mannitols. It meant nothing to Callen. He hardly even noticed the pro elastin face above him as he sat with his legs hanging over the edge of the platform. He’d decided to move from the platform and hide in the tunnel for as long as it took to sort out his bleeding stab wound. Again he looked the empty station over, before quickly lifting himself off the plastic platform and lowering himself to the tracks below. He walked quickly before coming to a stop to size up the tunnel he was about to enter. He began to walk, hugging one of the walls. He was clear of the station, but quickly losing the advantage of light. His eyes slowly acclimatised and he found it surprisingly easy to see. He moved at a steady pace and the entrance to the underground labyrinth grew smaller and smaller behind him.
He walked until he could find a place to rest, an indent in the wall or a door to hide in. He found nothing. The sheer plastic walls continued and he worried about the carriages. There’d be one along soon and Callen wasn’t sure how much room he had to spare. He was about to find out for certain. A rumble in the distance gave away their approach. Callen felt for the wall. He pressed his back firmly into it. The carriages growled, louder and louder as they raced to meet him. Then, around an invisible bend in the distance they appeared. A bright light and a pilot’s window was all he could see, but a steady gust of wind began. Callen waited as the carriages whistled past. The wind they created was almost enough to make him adjust his stance. The bright windows flashed like a mosaic of the city’s belongings: an old man with a grey moustache, a business woman reading a paper, a mother and her young child. They appeared then disappeared as if by magic before Callen’s eyes. He took his head off the plastic tiles that had been his cushion. Could he be seen by those travelling aboard the carriage? If so, any number of police or guards could be sent to find him. There seemed no possibility for him to relax.
Callen began his lonely walk again – there had to be somewhere to safely rest. He felt like he was walking for miles and all the time he had a feeling of staying still. The tunnel was remarkable only in its relentless similarities. A yellow line, within the white plastic walls to the side of the composite plastic tracks, kept him company. There was nothing different from one step to another and the sameness was depressing. If he kept walking he’d end up at the next station. Even he could see the pointlessness in that.
Callen heard footsteps behind him. He stopped and listened in silence. There was no sound. He began to walk again and within a few steps he heard the sound again. Maybe only an echo through the plastic chamber, he thought to himself. He walked a few steps and then stopped suddenly. He briefly heard steps, but they could have been the sounds of his own bouncing off the plastic walls. They came from behind, some distance away. Perhaps from the point where the tunnel curves. Was it an echo? Is that how echoes work – around corners?
“Hello,” he called out in the most feeble of seven year old voices.
“Hello,” he heard back, repeating itself as if growing thinner and enveloping the voice of each call that had gone before. It was an echo. Callen’s nerves were growing weary of this adventure and the journey into the dark tunnels under the city was not providing him with the trouble free resting place he’d hoped for. All he wanted was to rest and recover while the hunt for him cooled down, then he could catch a carriage back to his real home. He walked on dragging a hand along the smooth wall beside him. He caught a glimpse of something in the distance. It looked like a door and surprisingly, he could see the outline more clearly if he didn’t look directly at it. He couldn’t work out what was going on. First his ears were listening to echoes and now his eyes were seeing mirages. Or was there a door up ahead? He quickened his pace. With each step he turned his head sideways to see the outline more clearly. As he moved closer he no longer needed to rely on refraction to see it. There was no doubt about it being real. His excitement grew as he closed in and that excitement turned to pure joy when he reached the doorway and discovered an unimpeded entrance to stairs that led down, away from the glare of the carriage windows and away from the last possible threat to him being found.
Callen carefully walked down the stairs. Step after step, until in blackness, he ran out of steps. He stood, alone and lost. He couldn’t see a wall or a direction. He couldn’t even see the steps he’d come down and his first impulse was to turn around and climb back up the stairs. The thought barely settled in his mind before his parent’s image came to him. He lay down to rest and almost immediately fell asleep. Above him he could hear the rattle of another passing carriage. At least he was past that particular worry for a while.
A rasping sound sparked the birth of a flame from a lighter close enough to Callen’s face to singe his hair. Floating in darkness, lit up in horrifying theatricality, was the face of the seventeen year old boy who had tried to stab him. He’d followed him to finish the job and found Callen in the most perfect place to commit a crime undetected.
“Hello, kid,” he said, knowing this was his moment of terror to deliver. Callen opened his mouth and squeaked. Somewhere in his throat there was a blood curdling scream ricocheting around, searching for an escape that it was never going to find. A knife came out and flashed silver against the flame.
“Not too many people come down here. Which is good for me, I reckon.”
Callen began to shake uncontrollably and his lip was flicking back and forth. To the sound of yet another carriage rattling past overhead, the knife was brought around to Callen’s throat. Callen’s legs went weak and he began to cry as he closed his eyes and tensed his face, preparing for what was to come. It never arrived. The knife fell from the boy’s hand and hit the ground. A moment later the boy joined the blade on the ground. Above, the carriage clattered away as a shuffling could be heard close by. Callen went to run, seizing his good fortune, but his legs buckled and he tripped. He lay on the ground, clutching at his injured side and moaning. The boy’s lighter flicked back to life. The boy hadn’t moved and he and his knife both remained motionless at the feet of a bearded old man dressed in rags. The old man flicked the lighter closed and began to shuffle off.
“Please,” Callen called after him.
“What?” came the gruff reply as the old man stopped in his tracks.
“I don’t know where I am.”
“You’re below Sydenham Street.”
With that the old man began to walk again. Callen was quickly on his feet. The pain from his side had sharpened, but it didn’t stop him following the sound of the old man’s footsteps. The old man stopped on hearing the boy behind him.
“Are you following me?”
“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
The old man walked towards him and clicked his newly won lighter to life.
“What’s in the bag?” he asked.
“Clothes,” said Callen. The old man sneered and turned.
“And some food,” Callen added.
This seemed to please the old man far more and he moved the lighter around Callen’s face to get a better look at him, coming to a momentary stop at his side, which was once again seeping fresh blood.
“Can you walk?” he asked.
Callen nodded. The lighter clicked to black as the old man closed the lid.
“This way,” he said.
That was all that welcomed Callen into his blackened world. Callen was simply pleased to be in someone else’s care. He never gave a thought to any danger associated with this old man. After all, without him, there would have been nothing but rest for Callen in one of the world’s largest tombs.
Together they walked for a long time. There was rubble under foot. Small crushed rock that had been evenly spread by time. Occasionally Callen would stumble as his foot came to rest on a larger rock that wasn’t secured. The old man had designed his shuffling steps to eliminate this distraction. Callen was now some way behind. His side was still seeping blood and he’d taken to holding it firmly as he walked. The pain was causing him to wince with each step, but he quickly forgot about the injury as they turned a corner. Up ahead, not fifteen metres away, was a piece of thin hessian cloth. It was draped over an opening; a small room that was fashioned out of a crumbled wall; a cave that the old man called home. The feature that intrigued Callen more than any other was the light straining to break its way through the cloth door. The old man swept past and was silhouetted, not in darkness, but in light from behind the curtain. Callen reached the doorway and slowly moved the cloth to one side with his hand. The cave was lit. Not well, but enough to see.
There were two rooms, partitioned by a plastic sheet and propped up with some crates, all in various colours. There was a hole in the far wall with the telltale signs of a recent fire. On the ground nearby was a stockpile of sealed plastics, containing food. A small radio looking extremely antique, sat to one side of the room and a number of badly fashioned pieces of furniture, made from discarded plastic, stood at various points. The partition separated a bed that was raised off the ground. It was difficult to tell if it was made or not as the covers were rags, similar to those the old man wore. The bed could easily have held a dual purpose as a wardrobe. Callen stood watching the man go through a well rehearsed coming home ritual. This was a civilised being with everything but the civilised world to live in. Finally, having placed a number of items on a slightly skewed plastic shelf, he turned to Callen.
“Where did you get that?” he asked, indicating the wound in Callen’s side.
“In a park.”
Callen was now faced with making a quick decision. He’d been educated about the seriousness of concealing knowledge of physical intimacy and he decided to edit the events heavily as he retold them.
“I got in a fight.”
The old man came and kneeled by Callen’s side, removing the blood soaked towel and inspecting the wound properly.
Callen paused. The old man looked at him. He knew there was more to be told, but he wasn’t going to force the boy to speak about something that he plainly didn’t want known.
“It’s alright,” he said. “You don’t want to say, we’ll leave it unsaid.”
The old man went back to work on Callen’s side. He went to a shelf and found a bottle. He then took a rag that looked less dirty than the others nearby and soaked it with the contents. Callen was watching without worry. The old man seemed to be acting in his best interests and he was quite happy to give him his complete trust. The old man brought the rag to Callen’s side. Callen reacted as if he’d just been branded with a red hot iron. The old man placed his other arm around Callen, now jumping and screaming out in pain. He was held in place and the severe heat and sharpness that the wound had suddenly found, forced him to continue with his fruitless struggle. A fire had been lit in the wound and for some reason yet another person seemed to be taking revenge on him for things he wasn’t aware he’d done. After a long moment, the pain became less intense. It was still stinging and uncomfortable, but Callen was aware the worst was over and his desperation was tempered. He began to breathe normally, but his eyes were wide, staring at the old man who seemed to have few cares about what he’d just done.
“I don’t have stitches, but if you stay still for a day or so it might take on its own. Looks to me like you’ve lost a lot of blood. Not enough to kill you. That stuff’ll kill any germs looking to get to it.”
The old man moved to put the stinging liquid away. The rag went onto a shelf, folded and stacked with others.
“So what did you bring to eat?” he asked.
Callen took a moment to recover and then unpacked his bag. He had some synthetic bread and meats. He also had a plastic jar full of chocolate fudge and as he brought this treasure from his pack, he explained that it really needed the ice cream pie to set it off, but he’d felt, under the circumstances, the fudge alone would have to do. The old man laughed, which eased any remaining tension Callen had about being in his company. Callen’s seven year old mind demanded to know more about this strange man and the questions began thick and fast. Who was he? Where was he from? How and why did he live where he did? And where did the light come from to light the room?
The old man was happy to give away all his secrets. His name was Lewis Aurum. He was born and bred in the city. He worked hard for almost fifty years before he decided to try and better himself through crime. He was caught for fraud and sentenced to public service for two years. When he was released he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. With his police record, he was blamed for an attack he didn’t commit and given a life sentence of public service. Such a sentence included work details into the Outlocked land’s to gather natural resources for use within the city. It was during such a work detail that Lewis escaped, only to be set upon by the Outlocked. They had primitive weapons and no idea of what it was to be civilised. He waited to die, but found luck was on his side. They didn’t kill him straight off, but held him prisoner long enough for him to escape. The Outlocked chased him until he was cut off by a series of cliffs, but he managed to find a path that led him to an opening out of that hostile world and back to his own.
Lewis turned around and looked at the source of his light - it came from the wastelands. He had crawled along it to escape the world beyond and he explained that due to his record and unfinished sentence, resurfacing in the city wasn’t an option for him. The only other choice was to remain hidden in the tunnels and fashion what life he could. Callen stared at the small tunnel. He could easily fit through it. The thought terrified him. His curiosity would love to have travelled the adventure to the Outlocked world, but his common sense and understanding of what would be waiting for him made him think better of it. He had a path of his own to travel - to reunite with his parents. He’d rest for a day or two with this charitable old man and then climb to the carriage way. Then he’d ride to his old neighbourhood. All he had to do now was wait and heal.
The cloth door lifted slowly upwards. Callen and Lewis swivelled their heads in unison to see the boy with his knife. He had a trail of blood down his cheek from his right temple. His hair was dusty on one side from where his head had slept unconscious on the ground. He took a step inside the room.
“You should have stayed out of it, old man,” he said with a wave of his knife.
Lewis stood up and prepared for battle. Callen feared for him. He looked as old as anyone Callen had ever seen, by his best guest one hundred and forty or fifty years old. While a person’s life had extended itself to well over a hundred years above in the city, Lewis’ life had countered this trend since moving below. His diet had accelerated his age and Callen had no way of knowing he was barely seventy years old.
The two circled each other, until the young boy lunged forward. Lewis began to wrestle, prompting Callen to step in and try and help. The boy with the knife slung his arm at Callen and threw him away. The blade tore at the flesh on Callen’s upper arm and for the second time his blood baptised the knife. Lewis battled on and they struggled for a short while before the tension left the contest with a sharp movement from the boy’s arm. Callen couldn’t see the weapon anymore, but he knew exactly where it was. Lewis collapsed into the boy’s arms. The knife embedded to the hilt in his stomach and a coldness fast flowing over the old man’s face. He coughed slightly on finding rest on his knees and cried out when the boy removed the knife, letting him fall forward, his support now removed. He clutched at his stomach and seemed to shrink slightly, as he lay on the dirt floor. A single stream of blood meandered from underneath him to the foot of his attacker, now standing, staring at his victim and wiping the blade of the knife across his pants. The shine quickly returned to the blade.
As Lewis lay dying at his feet, the boy with the knife changed his focus to Callen. Callen held a hand over his arm, which bled freely from its fresh wound. The blood wasn’t stilled by the pressure of his hand and it formed a red glove as it coated his skin. Droplets were hitting the ground, having travelled over his hand and down his arm to the bend in his elbow. Callen was in great pain, but he wasn’t ready to die. In desperation he turned and crawled away, entering the small tunnel. The boy lunged and caught a foot, but his grip wasn’t firm and he was left holding a size five shoe. Callen crawled further. The opening to the Outlocked world was only a few metres ahead. Behind him, he heard the same shuffling sounds as the boy tried to follow him. Callen never thought of the consequences as he hit the light and emerged onto the steep slope of the near cliff like face of a small mountain. He rolled and skidded to the bottom, across loose rocks and sand, coming to rest fifty or sixty metres below. Above, at the opening to the tunnel, the boy looked down at Callen lying in pain. Nearby, an Outlocked scavenger had seen the dust clouds and was blowing a wooden trumpet to signal the arrival of an intruder from the city.
Callen saw more Outlocked approaching and began to take a few steps back up the steep slope. He looked up to see the boy, flashing his knife with a smile on his face. Callen changed direction and began to run as best he could. The Outlocked grew in number and, led by the trumpeter, began to chase. Their unkempt hair, emblazoned with ornaments of nature, jumped and bounced with each step they took. There garments dirty with wear and poorly cut from skins, gave them a prehistoric look. Callen’s pace increased. He wasn’t aware that two of the hunting party had broken off to try and scale the slope, having seen the young boy peering out from above. The boy disappeared quickly inside. He was happy to leave Callen to fend for himself and while he wanted to be certain of the outcome, he didn’t want to place himself at risk. Besides, he was convinced the Outlocked would finish the job he’d started.
The pursuit of Callen continued for some minutes. The Outlocked overtook him and wielded him around, as if they were mustering cattle. They had him heading back towards the area he’d come from. An exhausted Callen was sprinting; he’d lost any consideration for his wounds. The fresh cut to his arm was bleeding freely. The wound on his side had opened up to join it. He was fighting for breath as he ran. A number of times he was as good as caught, but the Outlocked seemed intent on extending the chase. Like a sport, their pursuit continued. Again and again they drove Callen in a direction of their choosing, until he was left no option but to try and scale the same slope he’d come down. The Outlocked chanted and screamed, as Callen struggled to gain a footing and ascend the slope. The blood still flowed from both wounds and his breathing was fast approaching the sounds of someone hysterically sobbing. Finally, half way up the face, he felt his head going light. His balance became unsure and all went dark.
He fell forward hitting the lose stones hard before beginning a tumbling descent like a rag doll. His tumbling fall continued until he reached level ground. Motionless, Callen lay unconscious at the feet of his pursuers. His breath made it obvious he had only passed out. The group looked at one another, unsure what to do next. ...