“The road to hard-town is paved with opportunity and blood,” the saying went around the slum. Rehki felt a thousand eyes watching her as she passed the shady shelters, brothels and bars. If there was a prosperous area of the slum, hard-town was as close as it got. While the sturdy buildings didn’t look like they would crumble in a strong wind, they were still a far cry from even the modest apartments of low-town. Broad-shouldered goons in clean suits stood guard at the entrances, their hands ready to snatch a concealed weapon at any time. Their faces growled “Get lost.”
Rehki had only been to hard-town once before, over a year ago when Ankit delivered a new tablet to one of the lower-rank Goonda’s. He paid Ankit well, not that Rehki saw a cent of the money. But the week after the transaction was one of the least stressful of her entire life. When Ankit had money, he wasn’t such a bad person to be around. When he didn’t, he was a smoking volcano that could erupt any moment.
Eventually she found her way back to the same establishment, a seedy lounge called Shivaji Vapors. One of the two looming goons in front stuck an arm out to block her entrance. “Too young,” he hissed.
“I’m here to see Arjun,” she said as she looked down to her feet.
“Fine. Then when the next Goonda gets what I’ve got, you can tell Arjun that he had first shot and missed it because of you.”
“Whatchu got to see Arjun about then?” he growled as he sized her up.
“An opportunity,” she answered placing a hand on the duffel bag. Slowly, she unzipped it, just enough to show the interface inside.
The goon held up his phone and snapped a picture of it and her. “Stay,” he said as he nodded to the other guard. Rehki stepped back away from the entrance to wait.
Shivaji Vapors sat at the edge of one of the biggest and most active bazaars in the slum. People only came to hard-town if they had to, when they wanted something; when they were willing to sacrifice something personal and important. Rehki could easily pick out the desperate from the benefactors just by the way they walked, if not by the quality of the clothes they wore or the smells they produced. Her overalls, tank top and shaggy hair easily pegged her among the most desperate.
But in her mind, Rehki was preparing a mini-checklist of things to do with the spaceship after this unpleasant experience was over.
After a few minutes, the door opened and the goon returned. “Open the bag.” Rehki unzipped it and offered it to him, avoiding direct eye contact. He nudged the interface with his knuckles, like an ape trying to figure out the best way to pick up a banana. “What is it?” he grumbled.
“I’m not here to do business with you,” Rehki answered cooly.
“You won’t do business with nobody if I break that pretty little jaw,” he hissed as he loomed over her, his hands balling into massive fists.
“Give the kid a break,” the other goon moaned. “What’d he say?”
“Inside,” the first goon growled, and Rehki hurried inside.
The inside of Shivaji Vapors was much nicer than the workshop but just as dimly lit. There were a dozen round tables spread throughout the room, most of which were empty. Rehki had no doubt they’d been full just a few hours ago as the parties went deep into the night. She saw a few girls not much older than her cleaning up the floor. They avoided eye contact as she walked past. The goon took her back behind the stage and knocked on a wall. A moment later, the wall opened up to reveal a doorway to what must have been the back office. Rehki skirted past the goon through the opening. Then he stepped in behind her and shut the door.
The office was roomy, filled with bookshelves and file cabinets of different sizes and two beautiful leather couches that faced each other, separated by a small coffee table. A middle-aged woman slept on one of the couches, her naked torso emerged from the woven blanket at her waist. On the far side of the room, a large wooden desk filled the space, and behind it, sitting in a thick leather chair, was Arjun. He looked exactly the same as Rehki remembered, young, rich and a breath away from committing a violent act.
“Who are you,” Arjun asked without looking up from his tablet, “and what do you want?”
“My name is Rehki. I don’t know if you remember me or not. I’m under contract with Ankit Kumar and his tech shop. We provided that tablet to you last year.”
Arjun considered her for a moment. “I don’t remember you or anyone named Ankit Kumar.”
Rehki wasn’t surprised. Ankit hadn’t been memorable that morning at all. As good a tech as he was, he made a lousy salesman. “How’s it working for you? The tablet, I mean.”
“It’s fine. In fact, it’s the only tech in the place that hasn’t broken down in a year.”
“That’s because I fixed it.”
Arjun choked a laugh. “You fixed it?”
“Most techs in the slum build in a timed failure or bug. Helps generate return business. I made sure your tablet didn’t have anything like that. Just another service that Kumar Tech provides like no one else,” she sang while forcing a smile onto her face.
Arjun’s face twisted with annoyance. “I’ll have to remember that.” He leaned back in his chair and slowly laced his fingers together. His handsome face was just as appealing to Rehki as it was frightening. “So, what sort of tech does Kumar have for me now, assuming it won’t break in a few months.”
“Not him. Me.”
“Really?,” he chuckled. The goon behind her grunted too. “Well then, by all means. Please sit down.” He gestured to a chair on the opposite side of his desk. She moved carefully to sit down, noting that neither the goon nor the girl moved an inch. “What’s your name again, girl?”
“Okay, Rehki. What do you have for me today?”
“Tell me, how do you communicate with your guys out there in hard-town?”
Arjun paused. “Same as everyone else. Our phones. Why?”
“What if I could give you something better? Something private. Something no other Goonda or thug could use but you and your people. No hacking. No spying. No one will even know it’s there.”
“And how are you going to provide that, little girl?”
“May I have my bag back?”
Arjun gestured with a finger, and the goon dropped the duffel on the desk so hard that Rehki winced. She hoped the interface wasn’t damaged. Arjun peeked inside. “What is it?”
“That’s a cell tower interface. Straight from high-town and the BMC.”
“So? Plenty of those around the slum. Have to be, or our phones are just bricks.”
“That’s right.” Rehki caught herself making direct eye contact and forced herself to look at his red velvet vest instead. “I’m repairing this one for the BMC right now.”
“I don’t see how that helps me.”
“I can setup this interface to include a private channel, just for you and your goon … I mean, team. Only you have access to it or know the frequency.”
“You’re saying we use BMC tech but only we can use the links?”
“That’s right. Complete autonomy. I’ll make it hacker-proof and 100 percent yours. As long as none of your people reveal its existence, no one will ever know it’s even there.”
“Even the BMC?”
“To them, it’ll just look like a out-of-band maintenance channel. They’ll ignore it. Once I program this interface and re-link it to the cell hive, my config will spread to every interface in the slum, and, bam, you’ve got your own private cellular network.”
Arjun smiled in spite of himself. “Tempting, techie. What’s your price?”
“I need a power cell with solar charging station.”
Arjun busted out laughing. Rehki assumed he knew the importance of what she was asking for. The girl stirred on the couch, pulling the blanket up over her head. “What’s a gulama going to do with a power cell like that?”
“Nothing that will concern you. You give me a working cell and charging station, you get your own private cell phone network everywhere in the slum. Seems like a bargain for you.”
“Watch your tongue, child,” Arjun snapped as he rose from his chair. He took a deep inhale from his vaper, and his torso quivered with the rush. Rehki sat still, her eyes fixed on the top of the desk but not reading anything. “What if it breaks? Not like the BMC will answer my calls.”
Rehki had dreaded this. “It won’t break,” she said less convincingly than she’d hoped.
“Like all the other tech around here? No. You work for me now. You keep my network up and running 24-7. You come when I call, gulama.”
Rehki gulped. “Yes, sir.”
“Good.” Arjun paused. “Why me?”
“What?” Rehki asked before stopping herself.
“You heard me,” Arjun hissed as he eased onto the edge of the desk. “Why give this tech to me? There’s any number of Goonda’s out there who would pay more than a power cell for tech like this.”
“They’d probably kill me after it was online.”
Arjun nodded. “Probably would at that. You’d be a loose end they couldn’t control. Tell me, why don’t I have the same problem?”
“Because you’re not like them,” Rehki said, looking up but not directly at him. “Word gets up north fast. You’re looking to monopolize the vaping taverns around the slum. Most of us would prefer you running them over the other Goonda’s, anyway. Easier access, lower costs, less hassles or shake-downs. You know your customers are already screwed, so why punish them more than necessary? You just take what you want and go. We know you’ll be fair. That’s why I know you’ll be fair with me now.”
Arjun took another deep vape. “How long would you need to get me my network?”
“So, we’re agreed?”
“Yes. We’re agreed. You deliver me my own cell network and keep it running, you get your own power cell.”
She rose from her chair. “If I get to work right now, I’ll have it up and running in a few hours.” She gulped. “With your permission, of course.”
“Vimul,” Arjun gestured to the goon, “get her whatever she needs, then keep an eye on her. She does anything you don’t like, break her neck.”
“Yes, boss,” Vimul answered in a cheerful way that sent a chill up Rehki’s spine.
“Don’t cross me, gulama Rehki,” Arjun whispered as he planted a fingertip onto her sternum. “I don’t like people who show up out of the blue with deals of a lifetime. They’ve always got some angle. I don’t know what yours is just yet, but I will, and when I do, if I don’t like it, it will stop, and then, you will stop. You understand me?”
“Yes, Mr. Arjun,” Rehki muttered, her face directed straight to the ground.
“Good. Then get to work.” He moved back to his chair and turned his attention to his tablet.
Rehki opened her mouth to thank him, but stopped herself. She knew better. Instead, she bowed and then walked back toward Vimul. “I’m going to need some tools and access to the roof,” she said.
Vimul grunted and then opened the door. “Let’s go, kid,” and he pushed her out the door. Rehki risked a quick glance behind her. Arjun was watching her the whole time, his blue eyes piercing through the haze of his vape straight at her. A terrifying smile slowly grew at the edge of his mouth as the wall closed between them.