It was a filthy city. Wasn’t that how all the brooding detectives were supposed to think of their home? Covered in grime and sleaze that no great flood could rinse free. Ounzo didn’t have marshmallow clouds or wine running through the gutters, but it had its charms. Not as old as some of the first cities to crop up in the middle of the land mass that over time fractured into varying countries and then merge back into only two, but Ounzo had the bones in it. Bones of an older civilization below the surface. Dig deep enough for a garden and you struck gold or steel, to the point archeologists were still raving on about what could be discovered in the ruins of whatever was pre-Ounzo. Kids could make a bundle digging into old landfills and dumping ancient bottle caps and coins into greedy historian hands.
That was what one person was blathering on about at the screen over her head. Jaya barely glanced at it while she sat on the bus. She was too enthralled people watching, her eyes skirting across the typical bus traveling fare. Various heights, weights, genders, skin tone, ages — it was an amalgam of the human spirit but they all had one thing in common: no one wanted to be here, and they resented everyone else for having to share the same air. An older gentleman, perhaps in his 70s or greater kept rapt attention upon the commercial masquerading as a news program. That celebrity historian, the one who always wore a bowtie and straw hat sat perched in the middle of a plush couch while two people debated. A younger woman kept pointing towards evidence of records and dig sites, as well as ancient statues unearthed from the scar. The man arguing with her had little to go on beyond ‘what everyone knew.’
Of course ‘what everyone knew’ was winning.
“Do you think it’s true?” a soft spoken young man leaned closer. He sat down beside Jaya at 45th street and, after sticking a node in his ear, hadn’t said anything. She assumed he was off in his own world instead of wondering about shit that belonged in the past.
“That we, that humans used to be…we were all 1s. No, less than 1s. We were 0s. Can you imagine?”
She was about to answer, when the older gentleman had to intercede, “That’s a load of hogshit. Ain’t no way one day all of us suddenly up and gains the powers of speed, and gravity, and what not. It’s preposterous. More science lies.”
“Oh yeah,” the quieter man sat up higher, “then…what about the rock heads out at the edge? How come none of them have jewels?”
There it was. The second anyone brought up the debate between scientists of when powers developed versus the assumption they were always entwined with the human genome, someone always pointed to the giant heads. No one knew who they were supposed to represent, the names or significance being long lost in the great change. But even a small child who hadn’t yet discovered their inborn SK would know something was off. They had no jewels. No yellow. No blue. Nothing in the forehead but more forehead.
“Ha,” the old man scoffed, “they were all pried off by treasure hunters. Everyone with brains knows that!” He tapped his head as if the younger man was too addled to comprehend it.
“Then why aren’t there any gaps where the real jewels were kept?”
“Gaps? Erosion, you moron. All that wind and sand polished them away. Anyone who’s got sense knows we always could do this and always will.” To show off, the old man tipped his hand towards the young man’s bag and the entire satchel flew across the gap in the aisle to land in his lap.
“Hey!” the younger man cried, struggling up to his legs.
Sighing, Jaya twisted her head and gave a quick buzz of her scanner to find the older man was a surprising 3. “Sir,” she stood up and carefully revealed the scrap of tin hanging on her pocket. The cackling old coot froze, his wrinkles drooping as he realized who he just stole in front of. Worse than that, he could be fined by the SK-agency for using his skills in such a manner.
“Return the bag to him and this will be considered an accident,” she said, wanting to get him off the hook as much to keep from having to do paperwork.
“Fine,” he snarled and with his ropey arms hurled the bag back at the young adult. “But we always had that. It’s a fact,” he ended in a huff, twisting back around to glare at the screen where bowtie awarded the points to the other male historian in the room.
Absently, Jaya reached under the cuff of her sweater to fiddle with the notch on her wrist. It was foolish to think she could trick it, but maybe if the numbers rounded out close enough this week she’d be okay. Guld save her from having to do another round of ‘Bookkeeping training: how to count past ten.’ That was a Saturday fully lost to mind numbing boredom. As she turned, she spotted the young man’s eyes sizing her up. Most when learning she was a collar would shrink or look through her as if she was glass, but she could spot the hunger in his eyes.
She had a good four or five years on the kid. He was probably off to university while she was nearing the dreaded thirty people like him considered ancient. What he saw was a woman with skin that couldn’t be easily classified. Most wrote her off as rather tan, failing to take into account her skin was rarely in the sun, until she drifted into shadow. That led to people asking where she came from or what she was, both of which received the answer of a sigh and walking away.
Her soft black hair was once long enough to reach towards the small of her back, but with age and lack of funds to afford the shampoo to clean it, she cut it to her shoulders. Swept up in a low ponytail was the extent of her doing her hair up right. There was a dash of makeup here and there, mascara, sometimes lip gloss. Jaya liked to play up the naturally darker hue on the top of her eyelids with a dab of gold. Her face was sharp with a nose that got into the room before she did. What little there was to see of her short body was hidden below a sweater, often two, a coat, fingerless gloves, and thick, wool trousers. And still, the kid wouldn’t stop staring.
Growing more aware, and feeling a blush lighting up the sprinkling of dark brown freckles upon her cheeks, Jaya absently tapped a finger against her jewel. It was a darker of the yellows, sometimes humorously referred to as piss colored, and shaped like the end of a shooting star. They weren’t really gemstones, hence why it was so warm and flexible. Something about skin, and sinew, and other sciency things they tried to drill into her head when she was younger came together to form them. But everyone called them jewels because it was more romantic than glowing skinflap. People said they controlled the skills. Other people said they didn’t. Some claimed that you could tell what level a person was by the clarity of the jewel.
Jaya glanced over at the young man with one so soft it was nearly ivory. Then her eyes trailed down to the reading off her scanner revealing the kid to be a 2. Twisting back towards the window, she sighed to herself. Some people lied.
As the morning slid closer to afternoon the city streets livened. Buildings crowded tighter to each other deeper into the heart, their always increasing shadows eclipsing the sun. It’d be a pain to deal with, but the lampers drifted to and fro amongst the crowds working the sidewalk. A few were buskers, putting on little light shows for entertainment, but most were same as everyone else — business people on their way to work or out of work.
The bus came to stop, letting the grumpy old man off while he continued to insist in the theories he’d overheard as if they were his own. Jaya’s wandering eye focused in on a small group of children, perhaps six or seven years old. They were all dressed in the same tan button up shirt and dark blue trousers. Those out of the loop would probably assume private school, but she knew that for some the shirts smothered too small bodies or the pants hems were so short entire shins were exposed. It wasn’t a loving parent who dressed them that day.
Two girls were holding hands, skipping back and forth a few feet above the sidewalk. When they hovered above a puddle, a young boy below them smashed hard into the water. Squealing, they spun about mid-air and attempted to kick at him, but he was quick to dash back from their attacks. So quick it left the eye blinded.
“Hey,” the voice was high pitched enough to overcome the sound of traffic and the thick, SK proof windows on the bus. A much smaller girl was racing up to try and catch the older children. She could be a sibling, but it was doubtful. They didn’t tend to keep families together. Waving her hand, she cried more, the words intelligible, but her mouth wide.
The small girl grabbed onto both of her pigtails and scrunched her shoulders up higher. For a brief nanosecond her form twitched, but she barely moved closer to the older kids wandering past. A speeder, too young to have really come into her power, but she was giving it her all to catch up. Jaya watched silently, the girl waving her hands like mad as she grew more upset. Obvious tears were welling up as she gripped harder onto her pigtails and tried again.
Barely lifting her fingers, Jaya cast a portal right before the girl. As she stepped forward, she was deposited a few feet ahead of her fellow children. The girl blinked in surprise, then turned back to the older kids who couldn’t believe how far she moved. Sticking out her tongue, she tugged the pack on her chest tighter and dashed off laughing.
Four. Leaning back in the seat, she watched as the program switched to a nature show. Fields of soft grass undulated as a herd of rhinos galloped free from their stables. The picturesque meadowlands that existed at the gap between both societies kept her company for the rest of the trip.