The boy nestled the hand grenade tight to chest.
The deadly explosive felt icy cold, though the afternoon city was feverish with summer humidity. He feared jostling it. So, he walked quickly, deliberately, and with extreme care.
Shesh’s bare feet padded along, on autopilot. He navigated the rusting tin panels that lined the floor of the narrow slum alleyway. He felt, by the denseness of the air -and the smell, that he was very near the bottom levels of the many-storied Sun City.
He knew they called it that because the sun’s rays never pierced to the lower floors of the slums. He figured the denizens were really just trying to avoid calling it “Slum City”.
Cramped decaying apartment buildings, fortified with scavenged bits of metal and plastic, formed a rat warren of tiny overfilled dwellings and markets. Each, dozens of floors deep. Every twenty meters or so, throughout Sun City, corroded water pipes and hulking bundles of cable wound their way through the labyrinth, like the gnarled roots of banyan trees. Even the poor needed the constant stream of the Line.
Perhaps, they needed it most.
Shesh slipped through a broken grating and found himself immersed in the harsh LED light that filled the bottom level markets.
Here, the clangor of quasi-legal commerce roared. Shouts battled for dominance in a potpourri of languages. The boy knew the street Hindi called Bambaiya, some Urdu, Marathi, and English. There were several others he understood, but didn’t speak well.
His nostrils twitched, assaulted by the conflicting odors of chemicals from laundry vats, and the smells of hundreds of vendors hawking a variety of tantalizing food.
From all sides, a multitude of people bellowed about the quality of their wares: curries, clothing, tech, flesh … nearly anything.
Shesh clutched the cold device under his stained white shirt. Head down, he marched past the local laundry. Women knelt at the edges of sickly looking pools, worrying at bits of cloth. They sang and chattered while beating and squeezing the filth from colorful thin sarongs and worn work clothes.
Their voices threaded seamlessly into the white noise of several cheap flat screens mounted on the walls. The dust coated monitors featured a commercial for sweet water with Bollywood dancers that twirled and flashed. Their brilliant smiles twinkled.
The smell of detergent and the bittersweet song of the women working pinched in the part of Shesh’s heart where he kept snapshots of his mother. He shook his head imperceptibly and blinked large almond shaped eyes.
Resolved, the boy marched on into the crush and din of the food market.
Just tall enough to see the wares being sold in ramshackle stalls; Shesh’s umber eyes darted over each pile of the colorful offerings.
His tongue ran over his dark lips; practically tasting the bountiful offering. He stood on tip-toes and popped his chin over a few of the tables. Fluorescent green and white packages of genetically modified Plentils were being sold alongside rat kebabs and cricket masalas.
Shesh salivated. Unblinking, he watched an old woman stir the masala. She folded the crickets in the thick fragrant sauce. The lovely scent of coconut, tomato, coriander, and garlic, curled past his little oval face. The woman scowled, chittered an admonishment in Hindi, and flapped him away with her gnarled hands. Her purple sari was wrapped tight and the hanging flesh draped over the cloth. The dangling fat wobbled with every annoyed movement.
Shesh flashed a brilliant smile that contrasted wildly against his dark skin and flicked the tip of his thumb off his teeth in a rude gesture. She spat and commenced stirring. Shesh turned away; shivered with hunger and moved on.
At the next booth, they were selling brightly colored bhel puri, a flavorful rice cake topped with onion, potato, and tart chutney. Shesh’s stomach groaned and he decided to scurry past the remaining curry vendors. There would be time and rupees for food- after the job.
Using his free hand, Shesh fanned the tantalizing aromas away from his sweat varnished face. Gritting his teeth, he hugged the hidden explosive against his protruding ribs.
The boy spotted the large central pathway that split Sun City market and pushed past several people, to join the streaming foot traffic.
At the corner of the main road, there was a filthy beggar balancing on a ratty cushion atop an ancient CRT television. The screen was blurred and scratched. Fuzzy lines rolled across its surface, but it was still clear enough to make out the people being broadcast.
It was a news program from the Mumbai Arcology, called “MUMBAI-Pop!” The brilliant white smile and flawless mahogany skin of a gorgeous Mumbaikar woman were on display. She was reporting about some rich famous person that lived in the glass-walled city. Below her perfection, a news ticker scrolled. The letters on the screen read: …GLOBAL ECONOMIC CRASH OF 2075 EFFECTS ON STOCK STILL…
Shesh looked from the tv, up into the face of the familiar beggar. His long matted hair and thick mustache all but obscured his face. Only a formidable nose jutted through the tangled mass of salt-and-pepper. The center of his forehead bore the dim glow of a luminescent tilaka mark. The glow-paint formed a yellow vertical line from his hairline to the bridge of his nose. The man had no arms; only tiny buds of proto-fingers poking out where his clavicles should have ended. He wore empty, short pants that folded oddly, underscoring his lack of any limbs, whatsoever.
The deformed man on his decaying pillow was surrounded by a troupe of cats and mewling kittens. He begged for money, Shesh knew, and used most of it to feed the feline colony. Shesh nodded at the man who serenely returned the gesture. The little boy adjusted the explosive under his shirt so he could more easily kneel and caress each of the noisy, silly kittens snuggling on the cushion. They pressed their tiny heads against his fingers; Shesh smiled, and stood up.
The boy turned, adjusted the hidden bomb under his shirt, and pressed into the crowd.