The streets were silent as the early morning chill slowly evaporated. Rekhi still broke a sweat as she ran, her heart racing from the possibilities of her new spaceship and the fear of what awaited her back at the workshop. Ankit rarely summoned her like this. Did he know about the ship? she gasped. Impossible. The envelope on her workbench had never been opened, and Ankit would have rubbed a prize like that in her face, demanding to know where it came from.
She banked around the corner, skimming the edge of a banger’s foot that had stretched out too far, and he grumbled something unpleasant at her in Marathi. She slowed as she approached the front of the workshop. Years ago, Ankit had scrounged together as many neon tubes he could find and siphoned the gas into his own fabrication. So now the pink glow from the workshop sign lit up the street in front of the dilapidated building. Rekhi remembered the day he’d turned it on. She was so stunned by the beauty of it, she decided to become a tech and understand how something that amazing could work.
Rekhi came to a dead stop as the front door opened. A tall, thin man sauntered out and wiped his hands on his dirty, brown overalls. She sighed in relief. “Well, good morning, Rekhi,” the man said in his thick American accent that stuck out in the slum like an electric guitar at a Mozart concert. The neon glow reflected off the gray streaks in his black hair.
“Good morning, Mr. Hawthorne,” she answered as she dropped her head, a reflex she abhorred but had developed over the years talking up to men inside the slum. Simon Hawthorne was an American who somehow found his way to the slums of Mumbai and setup his own tech shop on the other side of the Stretch. He and Ankit were competitors, no question, but they were also good traders. They found ways to help each other without trying to knock the other out of business. Not to mention Simon had taught Rehki a thing or two along the way, especially when it came to computer repairs.
“Your boss seems rather agitated today. He just kicked me out without even talking to me.”
“What do you mean?”
“He checks his bank account on Tuesday for autopays. They’re never enough.”
Simon nodded. “No, they never are, are they? You’re looking a little flush today. Everything okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” Rekhi stammered, searching for a lie. She was normally a good liar, you had to be in the slum. But for some reason, she always had a problem lying to Simon Hawthorne. “Just … going for a little morning run … you know. Gotta keep fit and all that.”
Simon considered her for a moment, and she was sure it was the worst lie she’d ever told in her life. Her cheeks grew ever redder. “Of course,” he finally said with a smirk. “Well, I’d be careful with our friend today. Maybe fix something he isn’t expecting. Brighten up his day a bit. What are you working on right now?”
“Nothing,” she blurted out, far faster than she liked. She could see on his face he no longer believed a word she would say. “Well, it’s something new. Something I’ve never tried before.”
“Excellent! New projects are always my favorite. You never know what you’re going to discover. What is it? Maybe I can help.”
“Nah, you wouldn’t be interested in it,” Rekhi said with more confidence. “It’s just an old piece of junk with no power.” If a lie wouldn’t work, maybe the truth was the only way out, even if just a piece of the truth.
He paused then smiled. “Well, don’t give up on it. You’re one of the best techs in the slum. My offer still stands, always will.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hawthorne, but you know I’m stuck with Ankit until my contract is up.” Rehki could have told him the number of hours until it was over. It was a large number.
“Well, the moment that ends, you come running to me. Until then, good luck in there.” With a nod, he tucked his dirty hands into his pockets and started back towards his shop, whistling a tune Rekhi didn’t recognize.
“Thanks,” she muttered then turned back to the entrance. “Well, let’s get this over with.”
The first time Rekhi had walked into Ankit’s workshop, she had been overwhelmed by so many amazing machines and an endless variety of parts that hung from the ceiling or peg boards behind workbenches. Bookshelves and cabinets overflowed with electronic parts of all kinds. Now she chuckled as she remembered thinking she could build her own spaceship just out of the parts in the workshop. If only she’d known that a few years later she would have her own spaceship. The cluttered room was lit by a pair of LED bars on small gravs that floated around the room, programmed to follow Ankit and illuminate the area around him. The rest of the room enjoyed only what little light could peak through the frosted window facing the side street.
“Welcome back, Rehki Sharma,” the shop A.I. announced as she closed the door behind her.
“Thank you, Dev.”
“I have clocked you back into service,” the voice of the A.I. continued. “Ankit wanted me to remind you that the cell tower interface must be repaired by 4 PM Friday.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
“Get over here, gulama,” Ankit barked from one of his workbenches. He always used that Marathi nickname for someone under contract, and she hated it almost as much as she hated working for him.
Ankit raised his head up over the storage bins that separated them. He was wearing a set of magnifying goggles that made his brown eyes bulge out. Rekhi stifled a giggle. “If I knew, I’d fix it myself,” he growled as his head ducked back down.
Rekhi carefully navigated a path through the stacks of parts and storage cabinets to stand beside him. She leaned over and gasped. “Where’d you get your hands on a G19?” The G19 smartphone had only been out for a year in high-town, at least according to the billboards she could read from the rooftops. It looked in pretty good shape too. Circuit boards were definitely intact. Even the casing next to it looked almost brand new.
“I told you never ask where I get my tech from,” he grumbled as he used a pair of tweezers to snatch one of the boards away from the chassis.
“Sorry,” Rehki muttered as she watched him work. Ankit had skills, no question. He’d built the workshop up from nothing and kept it going all these years. While she was pretty sure she’d learned everything she could from Ankit, she always kept an eye on him to see if there was anything new she could glean during her service. “What’s the problem?”
“The problem is I’ve got a buyer coming here in ten minutes, and I can’t get this damn thing to access the memory card.”
She scanned the G19 and quickly grasped its basic layout. It took her only a few more seconds to discover the flaw. She didn’t really understand how he could have missed it with those huge magnifying glasses. But she’d learned long ago how to handle this properly. “The G19 is so weird. How does it work?”
“Let me show you,” Ankit scoffed. Showing off was his favorite thing to do. “The G19 basically divides up key functions into separate cards, each with their own memory and processor, then they interconnect with each other using high-speed buses that …” He trailed off. It took all of Rehki’s control to keep from smirking. “There’s the problem.” He snatched the tweezers off the bench, gently grasped the errant card and easily slipped it into the appropriate bus, the one farthest from where he had been working. He plugged in the power cable and turned the phone on. The screen lit up with a soft blue. “There, fixed it.”
“Nice work,” Rehki cooed. “Now what?”
“Now, you get back to work, gulama,” he barked. “Just look busy and smart. I want the buyer to see we’re the best tech shop in all of Mumbai. Turn on as many things as you can too.” Rehki slipped off the stool and did as he instructed, activating a number of diagnostic monitors and screen projections. A moment later, the workshop looked like the command center of a battleship. Another tech would have seen through the mirage easily enough. Just diagnostic screens waiting to be used, nothing magical or amazing.
Rehki sighed as she settled behind her workbench. It was considerably smaller than Ankit’s, and most of the tools were hand-me-downs that barely worked. But she had managed to assemble a handful of diagnostics that could help her repair just about anything. A cell tower interface lay on the table just where she’d left it after she discovered the envelope. Ankit had a commission from the government to keep the interfaces operational, and in return he got food credits he could use in low-town. The BMC was always willing to support tech shops inside the slums. After all, if the residents were kept mindlessly distracted by technology, they’d never realize how sad their lives are and do something about it. Certainly Rehki had felt that way most of her childhood growing up in the orphanage. Her hands brushed the interface casing, and she remembered the feel of the console inside the cockpit. Her heart started racing again.
She knew what she had to do but wasn’t looking forward to it. Ankit was focused on getting the G19 ready for the client. She pulled a duffel bag out from behind her, slipped the interface inside and zipped it up. “Ankit?”
“What?” he barked.
“I don’t think I should be here when the client gets here.”
Ankit’s head popped up over the debris on his workbench. “What are you talking about?”
“Don’t you think the client would be more impressed if he saw that you managed all of this, and didn’t have anyone else to help you? Maybe he’d buy even more from you and come back again in the future.”
Ankit considered this for a moment, then his eyes settled on the digital clock hanging from one of the rafters. “Gods, I’m running out of time. Yes, yes! Go already! Don’t come back until the sign out front is off. Then you’ll know I’m done. Now scram.”
Rehki slipped off her stool and tucked the duffel bag close to her side to shield it from his gaze. She didn’t need to as he’d focused back on his work. As she opened the door, Dev’s voice sounded from the frame. “Goodbye, Rehki Sharma. I have clocked you out of service. Have a nice day.”
“Bye, Dev,” she answered with an eye-roll. She didn’t mind an A.I. They had their uses. But something about Dev always got under her skin. It felt like someone was always watching her, even in her own home.
Rekhi walked back out into the cool morning. “Get yourself a good ship,” she remembered. A ship’s no good without power, and there’s only one place to go to get power like that in the slums.
Taking a long breath, she headed deeper into the slums, towards hard-town, where the Goondas and their thugs ruled over everything in her world.