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Chapter 2


Mali gasped as pain raked her stomach where the punch had landed. Her head snapped sideways as a right hook hit home. Black spots danced in front of her eyes obscuring her vision. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. Cries and shouts for more blood surrounded her. Backing away from her opponent, she spit out the blood onto the packed dirt floor. Surrounding her was a thick mass of kids, elbowing each other for a better view of the fight. Dim lighting came from a few uncovered bulbs hanging from the low wood ceiling. Smoke stains and dirt clung to the ceiling and walls, making it stuffy and hard to breath.

Wiping her mouth she stepped back into the game. Her and her opponent, a boy of sixteen, circled each other with caution, both held their fists up in the normal boxing style. Suddenly the boy lunged in with a straight punch, but Mali was expecting it, and quickly ducked under the blow. Now under his guard she retaliated with two swift uppercut punches to his abdomen, making him struggle to stay balanced. Quickly, Mali cut her leg across his shins making him fall to the floor on his back. The boy recovered and rolled back onto his feet, barely missing a kick to the ribs. With an explosion of power the boy beat down on Mali’s defenses, fist hitting her in the cheek, than in the temple.

She fell to the ground, stunned, her eyes reeling from the blow. A scrawny kid of about thirteen elbowed his way down by where she lay. He had slightly rodent like features, and very yellow, very crooked teeth. Hence his name, Rat. “Come on Mali! I bet 10 creds on this fight!” He complained, “That’s my wages for 3 months!” Mali grabbed his shirt and pulled him close to her bleeding face.

“I never lose” she snarled in his face, and pushed him back into the crowd, knocking some other bystanders down as well, making kids snicker. Mali pushed herself back up onto her feet, and rolled her shoulders, bouncing a little. The sixteen year old boy gave her a look of annoyance. “Well come on then,” she motioned with her glove. He ran at her, intending to pin her against the wall of kids behind her. She sidestepped out of the way and tripped him with her foot as he ran by, cartoon style.

Mali laughed with surprise as he bowled over into the ring of kids surrounding them. She couldn’t believe that that had actually worked. He pushed kids down to get himself back up and turned around, putting his gloved fists back up. This time he approached her much slower but with the same intention. She dodged a swift punch to the left and ducked under the right hook that immediately followed. As his arm was still swinging around, she struck at his unprotected right cheek, making solid contact. His head snapped to left, and using his own momentum, she kicked his right side as well, successfully making him fall to the ground. A lump was already forming where she had struck him as he tottered back up for another round. She pounded at his defense, trying to find a hole, but boy, he was good even while he was half unconscious. Finally she found an uppercut to his chin, and he was finished. A crude bell made out of an old rusted bucket sounded, and the fight was over.

A mixture of sweat and dirt coted her body from head to toe, blood was coming out of the corner of her mouth and a few cuts. She knew that she was going to have a bruise on her cheek from when her defenses had failed. The ring of kids dispersed themselves in groups across the mostly barren room, mostly congregating around the small bar and the few tables and benches the room contained. For those who had bet on the match, a line was forming in front of the wager table. An old blackboard hung above and behind the table, with crude handwriting scrawling the names of fighters and their statistics. She paid the line no mind as she stalked up, pushing past others, to collect the victory cut.

The boy sitting behind the wager table, was one of the few kids in the room who could read and write. Because of this, he had acquired an arrogant air about him, and was always snobbish to anyone whom he deemed below him. He had long legs and an even longer nose, his eyes were an ugly dark green. His hair was fire orange and he had freckles. “I’m here for my money, Ralphie.” Mali stalked up.

“Ah, if it isn’t the victorious Somali, come to collect her undoubtedly hard won earnings.” He mocked, “Should I get up and bow in your presence?”

Mali folded her arms across her chest. “Cut the crap Ralph. Just give me the credits.”

He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head, giving her a good look up and down. His gaze made her feel uncomfortable. “My my, quite the attitude you have. You’re intimidation won’t work on me.” Mali could feel the line behind her getting impatient. “You’ll have to be a little more…inventive, than that.” He smiled coldly. Mali was just about to tell him what a perverted tapeworm he was when a hand was placed on her shoulder.

“Give her her cut, Ralph. Now.” A deep voice commanded. “And if this happens again, you’re out on the street.” Mali didn’t turn around as the hand was removed from her shoulder, and the man walked away. Ralph swallowed, white as a sheet, anger burning in his eyes. Without a word he handed Mali her share and she turned around. As she walked away, Mali could feel his eyes burning holes through her shirt. Many of the kids had looked up when the deep voice had spoken, and as she made her way to the far door, looked at her with expressions that ranged from awe to bright green jealousy.

She stepped up through the cellar door onto the street, into the black evening smog, coughing a little as she inhaled the chemical infused air. She hugged her thin coat close to her body for warmth as she turned left down the rutted path, though the air was heavy, it was still quite cold, due to Earth’s alarmingly thin atmosphere above the city. Dark buildings lined both sides of the street, stained with smoke and chemicals. Some even had blood stains, from the frequent gang fights that sprung up around town. Most of the buildings leaned precariously to one side or another, looking like a forest of broken trees after a storm.

Not that Mali had ever seen a forest. Of course she had heard of forests and seen pictures, just like every other kid in the world, and flowers, and cars, water to take showers in, and everything else of, but they didn’t exist in the lower levels of New Chicago. The higher you went up in the city, the nicer it would get, and you could see those things. Crowded city streets made way for garden terraces and finally the docking bays for expensive ships, the highest you could go. Mali had only been to the higher levels a few times.

At the end of the street she turned right, than a block later, right again. She slipped through a small, dirty alleyway to the back of a building slightly separate from the rest. She entered through the back door and climbed to the fourth floor, to room 201. The building had used to be a hotel before the forced conversion to credits in 2100, the universal standard of money across the galaxies. One credit had been equal to seven U.S. dollars, and so most of the world had gone bankrupt. The usual chaos had followed, riots, starvation, and disease. The Galactic Council that represented the seven major galactic species hadn’t realized what they were doing until it was too late. Now, most of the cities were just like New Chicago, massive lower levels where poverty was the norm, and a few levels of the privileged.

She hung her coat on the coat hanger just inside the door, and kicked her boots off. She then proceeded to flop down onto her bed. She stared at the ceiling above her, small cracks ran like spider webs through the cheap plaster. Why had Finnick intervened at the wage table today? Does he have something planned? Mali thought. Sighing, she dug the metal chits out of her pocket, and counted them. They amounted to forty-two credits. “Not bad, not bad at all.” She spoke to herself. Credit chits were thinish, circular coins that were made of a shiny alloy that could not rust. They were engraved on both sides with thin swirly vines and flowers, and in the middle was the engraved sign: §. It was the prothean symbol for unity.

Protheans were the oldest known intelligent life known to the galaxy. Their home planet had been named Oreaal, but had been destroyed hundreds of years before life had appeared on Earth. Now only a few hundred relics still survived in the galaxy, most of them owned by research facilities or tucked away in private collections. A few had prothean writing on it, and by cross referencing it with other, old languages, a salarian linguist by the name of Gerogin had cracked the language and now could read it. He had found that many modern day languages had all traced back to the prothean language, including Greek and Latin, from which English comes from.

Getting up, she placed her winnings inside her locked box hidden within the yellowy stained plaster of the wall in a secret compartment. Ducking behind a thin dressing screen she quickly washed and pulled on fresh clothes. She was just sitting down to eat dinner when her door opened and her roommate, Yane walked in, looking tired. He came to the table and sat down, his shaggy hair falling over his eyes as he hung his head. Years of living a hard life had made his body lean and fit underneath his baggy clothes. Sighing, he rubbed his neck and look up at her, his amber eyes meeting her blue ones. A thin layer of stubble had formed across his usually shaven face.

He smiled and she returned the gesture of goodwill. Mali had met Yane seven years ago, two years after running away from her orphanage, at the time she had been eight, and he twelve. She had been thin, cold, and starving. He had taken her in and fed her, working two jobs so they could eat. He taught her how to survive on the street, how to box, and all he knew about arithmetic. Both of them couldn’t read or write, but fortunately for them, people who were hiring weren’t looking for scholars.

Mali ladled some chicken soup into a bowl and set it in front of him, which he took gratefully and started sipping it from the rim; they didn’t own any spoons. Mali tore a hunk of bread off of the loaf that was sitting between them, and chewed it thoughtfully. She had pulled out a sheet of paper and a pen, and while balancing it on a book on her knees, was working on an advanced problem Yane had made up the night before. “So, how did the fight go?” He asked as he sipped. His voice was warm and soothing, the same it had been seven years ago on the night he had rescued her.

“Mmhmm.” Mali agreed, totally engrossed in her math problem.

“Somali” He asked, using her full name. She looked up from her paper, “I asked: how was the fight?”

“Oh, it went fine. I fought Ricky again. It seems they can’t find anyone more challenging.” She answered, already drifting back to her paper.

Yane examined Somali’s face for any damage, but all of the injuries were minimal. He noticed that her blonde hair was already down to the middle of her back again. It was starting to have a natural wave, and was laying around her face in a cute way. He shook his head to clear it, he shouldn’t be thinking of her like that. “Work was good, we just picked up some rare items.” He tried to revive the conversation, but Mali didn’t give any sign of hearing him. He sighed, stood, and cleared the table of dishes and food, then went behind the screen and washed. When he came back out Mali had discarded the paper on the table and was laying on her bed, staring at the ceiling.

He picked up the paper and looked at it. Mali had gotten halfway through, and then, by the scribbles and deep cross marks, he could see that she had become frustrated. He smiled “If you keep trying to stab the paper, I just might have to put a restraining order on you.” He looked over, but his usual good humor had gone unnoticed by Mali, who was frowning at the ceiling. He pulled a chair from the table and sat next to her bed. “Is something the matter?” He asked.

“I saw Finnick today, after the fight in the pub.” She said.

“That isn’t unusual, is it? You see him all the time.” He tried to hide his concern from his voice and face.

“I was having my usual problem with Ralph at the wager table. Only this time, Finnick comes up behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder. He told Ralph to knock it off and give me the creds. Then he just walks away. It doesn’t make sense, I thought he didn’t like me, after you pulled that warehouse raid on his cousin. It just doesn’t add up.” She finished. She could tell that she had concerned him greatly, Yane’s eyes were closed and he had his lips pressed together in a thin line. “Finnick is a very rich and powerful man, Yane, why would he take an interest in us?” Yane got up and moved to his coat, which hung by hers on the wall, his was so much bigger than hers, she absentmindedly noticed. He dug around in one of the pockets, then came and sat down again. In his hand was a rusted key.

“This key opens the warehouse I own in the Commerce District, where I have stashed my share of the raid that we did this morning. As of today, I have in my possession some rare things. I think that Finnick has already heard that I may have something valuable, and wants to do business.” He answered. Mali looked at him, disbelief in her eyes.

“He would sooner cut our throats than do business with us. He is a liar and thief! He owns all the bars and brothels from the terraces to Freefall! And he runs the biggest drug operation on this whole level” She sat up in bed and looked at him, “If you do business with him, we could be killed.”

“I know, I was not considering business with him at all. I just wonder how he knows what I have even before yo-,”He cut off abruptly. “Where you followed home from the pub tonight?”

“No, I would have known, you know I’m always careful about that sort of thing.” She answered. Taking his hand she tugged down on it, putting him back in his seat, he hadn’t even realized he had gotten up. They sat there, both of them thinking of the problem, until Somali yawned. She felt her eyes getting sleepy, the fight was taking its toll. Yane watched as she slowly fell asleep, her eyes closing in ever so small increments. Finally he got up and pushed the chair back under the table.

“Goodnight kid.” He smiled warmly, plopping down on his own bunk. They were both snoring within three seconds.

The next day, both woke bright and early, although you could barely tell through the thick smog. “What is on your list today Somali?” Yane asked.

“Well, I am going to start by cleaning our room, which looks like a thresher maw’s den, then off to the market for grocery shopping, then I have an appointment to finalize the plans for my next fight, which is tomorrow night, and then I’m going to come home and do all your stinky, dirty laundry.” She teased.

“All of my dirty laundry?” He asked, lifting an eye brow “what about all of your dirty laundry I see thrown about the room?” He picked up a pair of her pants that lay on the ground and whapped her in the face with it. “Yours smells just as bad as mine!” he laughed. Only to have a wadded up dirty dish cloth fly into his mouth. Bending over, he gagged as he spit it out.

“Doesn’t taste to good, does it?” Mali hid a smile and pretended to check her nails, which she could care less about. Soon, the air was full of dirty laundry flying through the room as one attempted to hit the other. Jackets, pants, and hats littered the floor everywhere, and one thing or another hung on every other available surface. Both were laughing hysterically when one would fall or slip, or be hit by a successfully thrown article. Finally Yane had Mali cornered, trapped between a wall and her bed, with nowhere else to go. “You better say your prayers, Mali,” Yane said as he prepared to throw a wadded up t-shirt at her “because I don’t think you’re going to make it to the market this morning!”

Just as he let it go, Mali made one last attempt at freedom, and dove towards her bed to get out of the way of the flying shirt. Acting without thought, Yane jumped to intercept her, landing on top of her on the bed, pinning both her arms with his on either side of her head. Both lay frozen for a moment in surprise, their faces inches apart, eyes locked onto each other’s. The moment ended as Yane quickly got up, whished Mali a good day, grabbed his cap and jacket from the wall, and swiftly exited, going to work. Mali was still lying on the bed. What just happened? She asked herself as she sat up, her heart was pounding a mad beat against her chest, and she all of a sudden felt light headed.

She just sat on the bed staring at the far wall, lost in confusion. She viewed Yane like a brother, she tried to convince herself, why was she feeling these things? Of course she thought he was attractive, with his golden hair and amber eyes. But he only viewed her as a little sister, she thought, he couldn’t feel about her like she felt about him. Mali hoped that he hadn’t noticed anything, she had been trying so hard not to let her attraction towards him show. She had first realized that she liked him when he had rushed into the apartment one night, carrying a dying sparrow in his arms. Its feathers where so full of oil, it looked like a crow, one look and Mali knew it was a goner.

But Yane filled up the bathtub anyway, and carefully rubbed soap and bath water through its feathers, repeating over and over again that he hadn’t seen it, and that he was sorry, to the little bird. This went on for hours as he tried unsuccessfully to get the oil off the bird. The sparrow had died that night, in his hands, still slick with oil. Yane had leaned against the bathtub side and started to cry, horrified that he had hurt a little innocent bird. Mali new he was tough as nails, and wouldn’t hesitate to kill anyone who tried to hurt them, but yet, he cried over this little dead bird in his arms. The next day he had quit his job at the oil factory, and had joined up with the motley crew he was with now. They raided rich people’s warehouses, and sold the goods for profit down in the lower levels. She had comforted him that night, and had been touched by his actions, that’s when she had started feeling weird about him.

She sighed and got up, if she told him how she felt about him it would just make their relationship more complicated. Mali started the huge task of cleaning their apartment, starting with all of the clothes that they had thrown about the room. When she had finished, she went behind the screen to wash and get ready for the day. She combed through her wet hair, and looked at herself in the mirror. Long, thick blonde strands of hair hung in pieces around her face, with red streaks dyed into it. Sky blue eyes peered back at her, heavy eyeliner surrounding them. A silver eyebrow piercing winked out at her, along with her four piercings in each ear and a nose ring. She had gotten those piercings on her thirteenth birthday, as a surprise from Yane.

All in all, she looked just as she always did, as tough as a rock. In the lower levels, everyone pierced, and dyed themselves, it was to show pride in where they came from, but also to intimidate others around them, the more extravagant you got, the more respect you earned. Yane was the only exception. He didn’t like dyed hair or piercings, and he didn’t need them. If Yane just walked into a room, his presence would fill the place. Everyone respected him because of his past reputation. He had once been second in command in the largest gang squad in the lower levels, the Blue Suns.

That was where he had learned how to fight, shoot, and steal. He still had his armor hidden somewhere inside the room, Mali knew. All that he had given up when he had taken her in, she still didn’t know why he had taken her in the first place. He had killed the gang leader, Forge, so he couldn’t follow them, and then had quickly moved himself and Mali into another level far away from them out of their territory, but people had still heard of his name. He had gotten a normal job and they had been here ever since.

She closed and locked the door behind her before she made her way downstairs, and out the back door of the apartment building. Heading towards the market, she breathed in the cold morning air. The smog was much thinner today, you could almost see the blue of the sky through it. She passed a building that had a glowing blue cross above its door. A dark blue asari was walking in through the front glass doors. It was a relief organization, newly opened, Mali reasoned, from the looks of the freshly painted modern building. That won’t last long she laughed as she passed, sooner or later some gang would ransack the place.

After the change to credits and the bankruptcy, the Council had organized a relief effort for those left on Earth, called the Blue Cross. It is a volunteer organization that focuses on helping Earth mostly led by asari, aliens that looked remarkably like humans. Asari are a mono-gendered race, their skin color can range from teal blue to purple, depending on the person, teal being rare among their varying skin colors. Besides this they have no hair on their bodies, in place of head hair, they have 6 semi-flexible cartilage based crests that gracefully form what looks like a slicked back hair-doo. Over the years, humans and asari have become more and more linked as couples of both species become more common.

Mali continued down the road past the relief center, and followed the street into an open square. The buzz of human activity filled her ears as she took in the levels Market Square. It was actually shaped more like an oval, with tall buildings all around. In the center stood a statue of the mayor of New Chicago, and all around there where hundreds of carts and stalls. It was a maze to walk through, carts set up in no particular order selling anything you could think of. Mali passed a stall selling third grade refurbished omni-tools, sitting right next door was a vendor selling fish. One particular stall caught her eye, it was a clean white with a blue sign that read ICT Recruitment. As she passed a man of about twenty-seven caught her eye and motioned her over.

He was wearing an all-black full battle armor and had an assault rifle strapped to his back, proudly displaying the N7 emblem engraved on the left upper part of his chest plate. “You look like a girl who could kick some serious butt. Are you interested in becoming an N7 soldier?” He asked as she stood in front of him.

She eyed the stall with scrutiny, looking for anything that might suggest it was a fraud, but everything seemed genuine. “I thought that you had to be part of the military to be recruited into special ops?” Mali asked, suspicious.

“Generally speaking, yes. But lately the ICT has been struggling to find combatants worthy of training; because of the extensive military funding cuts over the last decade they haven’t been able to give as much training to recruits that they used too. There just isn’t enough N7’s to go around. So for the time being, ICT has opened its doors to anyone that has experience, and what better place to start than in all the lower levels of all the cities on Earth? Where, by the crime statistics, life expectancy is less than thirty years old. If you think you got what it takes, than the ICT is more than confident it can train you. It is a much harder program for those who aren’t in the military, but it is well worth the effort and you don’t have to wait to be picked, or earn a status, you can just sign up and start. Of course, since your underage, you’ll have to go to NightWall first.”

“But anyone who goes from nothing to becoming a full-fledged N7 soldier would probably gain you recognition and fame inside and outside the ICT, and might even become Spectre material, seeing as the human council members are always looking to increase the number of human Spectres in the galaxy.” The human soldier raised an eyebrow, “so are you in?”

To Mali, this man seemed much easier going than she would have ever thought someone of his prestige would ever be, considering how grueling N7 training was, and how only battle hardened, war-winning heroes were even considered to even try out. Mali shook her head no, gave him a smile, and moved on to the other stalls, imagining herself dressed up in all that expensive onyx armor, the red N7 emblem brazen on her chest, over her heart. Storming into the heat of battle, gun blazing, leading the charge and never faltering, though others dropped dead like rain around her. She shook her head with its ridiculousness, her life was here, and always would be. She had been born in the gutter, and would die in it, she was no better than a street rat.

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