Tim forced himself deeper into the corner, desperately trying to get away from the mass stench of human bodies and waste from both the living and the dead attempting to get a breath of fresh air; an escape from the cramped cattle car that they were forced into. He couldn’t fight the claustrophobia that threatened to arise. He feels Chris shift slightly and whisper something into his ear, “Breathe,” He murmurs in his ear, holding him close.
“Where are we going, Chris?”
“I don’t know Tim.”
Futilely, Tim tries to breathe, swallowing the haunting images down with an attempt to gulp the air. The images come in flashes. The burning buildings, the screaming, the bloodied wearing the faces of those he held so very dear. He remembers the inhumane long limbs reaching towards him,stained with the blood of his family and neighbors. Faintly he hears Chris’s voice. Focusing on that scratchy voice, he tethers himself to it. Grounding himself against the torrent of memories that threaten to consume him.
“It’s going to be okay, Tim.” Chris said his sky blue eyes sparkling with promise and hope, “I protected you then, and I will protect you now. I got you, Little Bird.”
The door opening with a squeak rouses Tim from his sleep. He’s shaken by the dream, the one memory he doesn’t want to remember but is still vividly planted in his memories. He calms his erratic nerves and heartbeat, the relief of Chris’s home replacing the internal frenzy.
“You’ve got coal on your face,” Tim says quietly, watching Chris come in. He must’ve fallen asleep while waiting for Chris to come home. Like he always has, always waiting, fearing that Chris wouldn’t return.
“You’re still awake?” Chris’s walks over to his bed and Tim can smell dirt and ashes on him. He also stinks in sweat.
“Yeah,” Tim says, rubbing his eyes.
Chris grins. “Hey, I got something for you,” He unzips his mining suit, revealing a toned upper body in a black shirt.
“Hmm?” Tim says, half-awake.
“I was mining, right? You know, for their titanium?” Chris says and he sounds excited. “I found a crystal.”
Tim sits up at that. He stares at Chris and looks at his outstretched hand. In his calloused palm is a small crystal. In the moonlight streaming in through the window, Tim can see the colorful luster from it. The moonlight makes the crystal’s shine burst, reflecting shards of all colors on the gray walls of their small apartment.
A star crystal. A real one in the flesh.
Tim is instantly awe-struck by it and before his fingers can gingerly take it, he says sarcastically, unable to stop himself, “I can totally feel the radiation.”
Chris grins and Tim takes it, heavy in his hand, and he looks at it. A star crystal was rare, considered more beautiful than just a crystal with its luminous glow and shine. They were leftovers from the nuclear war and Tim knows they’re more than just gems; they’re painful reminders to humanity. The reminder that they lost the war with the Novas.
“If you get caught--” Tim begins but Chris shakes his head.
“It’s small, relax. Most of it already was given to them,” Chris says and he pulls out something from his tool belt, a piece of wire and he begins tinkering with something. Tim watches his deft hands make something out of a wire and string before Chris holds up his work.
The wire was wrapped around the crystal like a pendant, and Chris quickly takes a string of leather, tying it into a necklace. “C’mere, Tim,” Chris says softly and Tim gets out of bed, joining him on the cold ground. He stills as Chris leans in, tying the two ends behind Tim’s neck and Tim could feel it against his chest. He pulls back and Tim is holding the pendant.
“There. Looks good,” Chris says and Tim can’t help but feel awe-struck by it.
“Don’t let the Novas see it,” Chris says seriously. “If you get caught, blame it on me. Alright, Timothy?”
Tim nods, feeling like a child. Sometimes Chris is like Tim’s older sibling, the way his tone goes all serious. The age gap feels bigger than when most of the time it isn’t. But for this promise, Tim knows he won’t be blaming Chris. He would never.
“Thanks, Chris,” Tim says shyly.
Chris smiles. “Alright, get some sleep, little bird.”
Tim nods and he lumbers back into bed as Chris heads into the showers. He turns on his side, hands gripping the crystal before his eyelids fall shut with a single flutter of his eyelashes.
A hand roughly ruffles Tim’s hair.
“Chris,” Tim mumbles, cracking open his eyes. Annoyance sparks in Tim's head.
Chris is looking down at him, grinning, his jagged tooth sticking out a little. “Hey, little bird,” Chris says softly. “Had a nice dream?”
Tim shakes his head. “What time is it?”
“Relax, I checked your schedule, you have no work,” Chris says and Tim relaxes into relief.
No work. That’s good. Just what Tim needed.
“So why’d you wake me up?” Tim asks, hugging his pillow while burrowing his head into it.
“Because it’s past noon and you’re going to sleep the entire day off if I don’t,” Chris says, slapping Tim’s shoulder. “Come one, get up, we’re going out.”
Tim groans loudly. “Chris, let me live.”
“Don’t worry, little bird, you got yourself 12 hours of sleep. You’ll live,” Chris assures. “We’re going out to actually get some food and act like decent humans, not some working robots.”
The irony of it makes Tim force laugh as he sits up, Chris waiting for him to get dressed. “That’s real funny, Rivers.”
Chris shrugs. “Come on, Tim, hurry up. I’d rather not shop at night.”
“Right,” Tim says and pulls on black leather pants and pulls a jacket over his shirt. He slaps on his watch and follows Chris out. The sun high in the sky makes Tim’s eyes instinctively squint. He quickly adjusts to it, keeping close to Chris as they walk down six flights of stairs. He looks out to the side while walking, staring at the city of Genecis. Their aero technology are flying across the skies, hover cars driving on the air roads, robots traveling at the sides. In the distance, he sees the capital of Genecis, with its towering skyscrapers and holographic advertisements dancing around the sides. There’s more color, more Nova aliens, and more technology in the capital than the suburb slums. Here in the suburb slums, there’s less technology running around, not a lot of electromagnetic roads for the hover cars and scooters. But there are certainly more Nova soldiers on the watch like now.
There’s a pair of Nova soldiers, with their dark blue and silver uniforms and black visors, looking out from above. They look like armed ninja, covered from head to toe. Tim turns his attention away before his eyes meet the sharp eyes of the Nova soldiers.
Tim steps into a puddle as they walk out into the street of the slums. The air here reeks of sewage and gas. In this one particular slum neighborhood, the population is mostly humans. Like Tim and Chris, they’re all slaves, working for the Nova aliens. Living in poor but manageable situations, they’re working for the most basic necessities, unlike the luxury the Nova has.
As far as Tim knows, no human was living like a Nova: personal robots, expensive houses worth 10 years of work, hover cars, any home technology, personal gadgets, etc. Every human is treated the same, like garbage, tools and slaves, one life worth absolutely nothing because it can be replaced.
This was the result of the war that humanity had lost. The humility that humanity was to take and live with.
The thought makes Tim angry and spiteful. He hated living like this. He hated being so vulnerable. He hated being so powerless. He hated what the Nova aliens did to humans. Reducing them to nothing, and taking away whatever pride and hope were instilled in them and turning it into despair and submission.
“Did you hear?”
Tim catches on a mutter.
“The R30 is in Genecis.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I swear, someone said they saw the insignia.”
R30. The Resistance that humanity clings onto to save the planet. Tim doesn't know a lot about them; only that they're like fleeting shooting stars. They appear and disappear and no one's seen them in action. But they made themselves heroes and celebrities among the humans for taking back Japan from Nova rule. The word spread, sparking anger in the aliens and hope in humanity.
Tim doesn’t catch the rest as Chris leads them into a narrow alleyway, opening a door into a small store.
“Hi, Aunt Aly!” Chris calls out. “You got the stuff?”
“I’m not old enough to be your aunt, kid,” A female voice says in annoyance.
Tim waves at an older woman about mid-20s, her blonde hair tied up into a high ponytail. Like many others, she’s wearing cargo pants, and a tank with a jacket tied around her waist. Aly is a broker and an informant. She's one of the fortunate people who are able to make good Bits on their own.
“I got your stuff. They’re hard to get so I better be getting some good Bits for them,” Aly says.
“Don’t worry, sweetheart,” Chris assures. He pulls out a small pouch. “I don’t have enough Bits but I’ve got something you’re bound to keep and not sell.”
Aly raises an eyebrow before her face goes slack with surprise. “That’s a star crystal.”
“Found it in the mine. An entire pound of it,” Chris says, taking the pack and tucking it into the inside of his work jacket. “I chipped a good amount.”
Aly takes the stone-sized crystal, holding it up to the light where a thousand shards of light reflects onto the walls as if the entire galaxy exploded. It takes away Tim’s breath as he watches them dance before Aly takes it down from the light.
“Hm. Consider your payment taken,” She says, grinning. “That’s how you know a star crystal is genuine.”
Tim feels his own knock lightly against his chest, hidden behind his shirt. He makes a mental note of trying it back at home.
“Don’t go around telling people I have it,” Chris warns. “That’s the last of it I have.”
“I won’t,” Aly tucks the crystal into the pouch as she puts it in her pocket. “Guess working in the mines has its pros?”
Chris grins. “You bet.”
The two leave the store, Tim reaching out his arm to tap Chris shoulder for his attention. He never realized consciously how tall and adult-like Chris was. Or maybe Tim was just small. “You have more don’t you,” He says to Chris who looks at him.
“Always the detective, Timmy,” Chris says almost affectionately. “Yeah, I’ve got two pieces of it. For precaution.”
Tim nods. Of course.
There were many times where Tim and Chris have gone days without food because they’d already paid their tax to the aliens, leaving them bare without Bits for themselves. They had to rely on their belongings which they sold or traded for small portions of food. Belongings that were hard for Tim to give away. But tough times called for desperate measures. It was the only way to live. To survive.
Chris, being the oldest, had this responsibility Tim knew he could have but couldn’t because Chris was used to taking care of younger ones. He was the one who took cautions, who took on the role of being a brother. A mother. A father. And most importantly, a friend. He always had a plan and if he didn’t, that’s when Tim came in and did his own magic. Gathered his own knowledge of resources, and put them both back on track on surviving.
“We need food,” Tim says, pulling Chris into the market stalls. “We need eggs, jerky, and bread.”
“I thought we had jerky,” Chris says, letting himself get dragged.
“We ate the last of it,” Tim says.
“I probably did,” Chris says sheepishly.
Tim can’t help but grin because it was Chris who did. Being the mine worker, Chris always took more strips than Tim did. And Tim didn’t really mind; in the workshop, he was given crackers as a snack and if that wasn’t much, it was something. And Tim didn’t eat a lot anyway.
“We should get about two bags in return for half a dozen eggs and a half a loaf of bread,” Tim says, thinking. “Jerky fills the stomach more and it’s more convenient.”
“Sure, little bird. Let me get the bread and eggs,” Chris ruffles Tim’s hair. “I’ll meet you back in here in about 15.”
“Sounds good,” Tim agrees and they’ve gone separate ways in the crowd. As he moves his way through the mass of humans, his ears catch on the same whispering he’s heard around Aly’s place.
“They say the R30 are here. They’ve saved the people in the slave auction.”
“It's a failed operation...every human there was killed.”
Tim notices a pickpocket among the crowd and moves behind a large shouldered man, making sure it looks like he’s with him. The act comes off as a success and Tim sees the jerky stall. “Hi, Uncle Blackthorn,” Tim greets politely, coming in front of the stall, face-to-face with a tall, muscled man with a beard and an eyepatch over his right eye.
“Timothy,” Blackthorn says, already scopping jerky into the plastic bag. “Getting the jerky as usual?”
“Two bags of it this time,” Tim says friendly. “You know Chris.”
Blackthorn laughs. “Oh, I know that boy. Quite the lover of these.”
“I know,” Tim says and he takes the bag, tapping his watch and transferring 800 Bits to his account. “Thanks, Uncle Blackthorn,” Tim says, leaving with a two-fingered salute.
Tim keeps the bags close to him, making calculations in his head as he walks to the meeting place. Spending 800 Bits for two bags was expensive--400 per bag--and Chris is bound to spend at 320 for the loaves of bread and another 345 for the eggs. They’re human food, after all, ones that are hard to get even for humans. Many of them are stolen and resold here, in one of the biggest human districts, or they’re distributed with a price to pay.
Tim almost misses the slender hand that reaches for his watch and Tim grabs the wrist and flips him onto his back in front of him. People walking avoid the tangle of limbs and some watch, some ignore and walk pass as Tim stares at the lanky pickpocketer. Tim doesn’t like judging others based on appearances, but this guy just fits the shady look.