Dealing in Dreams
CHAPTER 1 PATROLLING MEGA
Tonight feels different. The weight of her absence hits me. On most nights when my crew and I patrol the streets of Mega City, I feel a sense of invincibility mixed with glee. Violence can do that to a person, especially when you’re the one unleashing it. At night my crew, Las Mal Criadas, own these streets. Not tonight. We’re missing one of our girls, and the warm breeze that blankets my face is a trick meant to seduce me into thinking everything is fine. My soldier Manos Dura. She didn’t have to go out like that. No one deserved that ending.
“Go check the building.” Truck, my right hand, barks out an order. One of my soldiers sprints ahead. It’s been almost a month since the end of Manos Dura, and we’re still feeling it. It was Truck who recruited and trained her to be the fifth in our all-girl gang. Manos Dura’s specialty was her fists. No one ever wanted to catch them hands. She was good, and
now she’s gone. The last thing I want to do is be out here patrolling. Such is my lot in life. It’s what Las Mal Criadas do. Not for long, though.
“Does she see any stragglers?” I ask Shi. She checks the Codigo5G goggles. The machine is run-down, an old model. We’re lucky to have them. Only top crews are authorized to be connected to the server. These Codigos were a gift from Déesse, our beloved leader of Mega City. We have access to the libraries and the ability to transmit.
“She says it looks pretty quiet, Chief Rocka.” Shi calls me by the title I earned as the leader of the baddest girl gang in Mega City. I hold the title close to my chest. I intend to keep it.
Abandoned buildings line the streets, empty and menacing. There’s no noise except for our boots crunching down on crumbling sidewalks. The nightly curfew is absolute. The people of Mega City are meant to be sleeping in their underground homes. No one is allowed to be out except for crews. From the northeastern tip of Mega City to close to the water, Las Mal Criadas are in charge of maintaining curfew. Other crews take up different sections of the city. We’ve been at this for five years now. It never fails. We always find a toiler or two aimlessly lost on the streets, such as this woman who is curled in a fetal position against a slab of concrete. Her housedress is dirty. Her hair is a tangled mess of knots.
“What the hell are you doing?” Truck yells. The woman wakes with a startled look. Truck grabs her by the arms and
drags the woman to the nearest station. The woman pleads. She’s so confused. Truck doesn’t bother. She shoves the woman in. Her whimpering echoes up toward the street.
I look away and stare at the Mega Towers, which stand tall, a trio of giant rectangular boxes. The Towers are one of the few buildings that aren’t falling apart. There are 536 apartments in the Towers. There’s even a school and a health center. Déesse, the leader of Mega City, lives on the top floor. No one is allowed in without an invite. Soon I’ll be living there, sleeping in a real bed, not on the dirt floor with Truck snoring on one side of me and another soldier talking in her sleep on the other. To be part of Déesse’s chosen guard . . . That’s the prize and I intend to grab it. We’ll be chilling with the elite, the chosen few, and we will be no different from them. No more fighting other crews and no more dealing with lost toilers. The Mega Towers is where it’s at.
It’s why we call it breaking night. There are times when you break a person back into sleeping. When the sun comes up, the grueling work begins again for this woman and the other countless toilers, whether it’s making the sueño tabs in the factories or running mercados for people to trade for essentials. If you are in a crew, you’re not considered a toiler. We are above them.
When this woman wakes up in the morning, she’ll be able to fulfill her duties because she’ll feel the euphoric remnants from the manufactured dreams made by taking a sueño. Life is
monotonous aboveground. Everyone needs to dream in order to survive.
“Does Déesse really live up there?” Nena asks. Nena is our newest recruit, meant to replace Manos Dura. Truck is not convinced Nena has what it takes to be an LMC. She’s eleven, almost twelve. She’s got a hunger, a strong desire to please, and that’s valuable. Still, Nena is too green to understand she shouldn’t even be asking me questions. She should be soldiering.
“Recite the Mega City history right now,” I say. “You should know this already.”
Nena rubs her forehead before speaking. We make every potential soldier study up on the history. No one is exempt. If you don’t know your history, then you have no power. That’s the problem with the other gangs. They think their strength lies only in their fists. Not my crew. I plan to take them straight to the top, and it will be because we outdid the rest with smarts.
“Before the Big Shake of 2060, men destroyed the city with their greed,” Nena says. She looks up with her big eyes and waits for me to give her a nod to continue. “The Big Shake happened and everything was gone.
“We are the daughters of Mega City. We patrol because Déesse’s great-grandmother gathered everyone together. She trained women to defend themselves. We showed the men we didn’t need them. Mega City was going to be for women. If they didn’t like it, they could step.”
“Good. Now, why are gangs made up of only five girls?” I circle around her. She stands straight, hands to her sides, stiff.
“There were four who started Mega City with Déesse’s great-grandmother. Five leaders total, all women.” She smiles to herself, pleased she’s getting it right. My other two soldiers, Smiley and Shi, look on. They are waiting for her to slip up. “Also, five means grace.”
“And how many gangs are there in Mega City?”
She stops and looks down. Nena doesn’t remember the answer. Smiley starts to laugh loudly. They shake their heads. Manos Dura never had a problem when she recited the history. Nena is no Manos Dura. She might have been twelve but Manos never let age get in the way. She listened when she needed to, took notes, and studied them later. When things were quiet, she would ask me questions about everything. Her round face was filled with curiosity.
“Why do we keep her around?” Truck pushes Nena to the ground. “She can’t even memorize facts.” Nena stands with a rage face. The rage lasts only for a few seconds. She’s so young.
“Go light up our way,” I say.
A disappointed Nena climbs up the lamppost and uses her mini-blowtorch to light the lamp. She climbs down and jogs to the next one.
“Total waste,” Truck says. “We never had a problem with Mano. Mano had the history memorized in a day. She didn’t play around.” With the mention of her name, my heart starts
to hurt again. It’s true. Mano was a straight LMC from the first day. She anticipated what needed to be done. How was it possible the one time she needed to be extra alert Mano had her defenses down?
It was the Deadly Venoms. They caught Manos Dura on her way back from partying at the Luna Club. That night we were so trashed. We were victorious in our last throwdown and things were looking up. One more battle with the Deadly Venoms and we would surely secure a spot in Déesse’s army. We were feeling good, unstoppable. When Manos Dura left the club early, we didn’t think twice. We’d thought she left to sleep off the drinks over at our station. Instead, the Deadly Venoms intercepted her on her way and beat her down. By the time Mano’s body was found, there wasn’t much left. The only proof we had it was her was the LMC tattoo I personally branded on the side of her head. The Deadly Venoms didn’t own up to doing the deed. We had no proof. Death. Our girl. My soldier.
“Want one, Chief Rocka?” Smiley offers me a food pellet. I decline. Smiley deals with the loss by eating. The gold grill covering her bottom row of teeth looks tarnished, not brilliant like when she first made the trade after accumulating so many hundreds of sueño tabs.
Smiley pulls out her cap and tags over a sign made by the Deadly Venoms. Of course they would use an audacious and tacky tag that’s barely legible. Huge round bubble letters in
their colors of black and pink appear as if written by a toddler. Smiley covers their ink and blazes the LMC in a solid graf style, clean and straight, with our colors of red and gold.
The violence has been steady growing ever since we’ve been inching closer to Déesse. It’s one thing to fight in the public space during monthly scheduled throwdowns; it’s quite another to cancel another gang member off hours. The Deadly Venoms are rotten to the core. There’s no loyalty. No sense of rules, just anarchy. They’ve cheated and bashed their way to be placed in front of Déesse. They won’t last. They’ll pay for what they did to Manos Dura. When that’s done, we will be the top dogs of this city. I won’t have to bloody my hands on trash anymore. I’ll be next to my leader, in her army, keeping Mega City safe from the degenerates who live past the border in Cemi Territory.
“Few more hours and I’m heading to the Luna Club,” Truck says. “Screw this patrol.” Truck stands tall, with large arms and broad shoulders. It took everyone on my team to keep her from walking into Deadly Venoms’ neighborhood and ending them. There are times when Truck reacts so impulsively. She’s been handling the death of Mano with more violence. Toilers are getting the brunt of it. Otherwise Truck spends her time partying at the Luna Club. We each have our ways.
Smiley presses her face up against a window of a building. It’s a training camp for young girls to learn how to fight. The building is small. There are only a few official training camps
in Mega City. The one Truck and I went through is farther east and it is by far the biggest. Families from every corner traveled to the camp in the hopes their daughter would be taken. If you can put up with the brutal training, you are guaranteed a place to sleep and eat. Most young girls come from nothing. The training camps at least teach you how to fight. It’s not pretty, yet I made it through.
“Let’s wake them up,” Smiley says with her mischievous grin. Smiley is short and round. A trickster, she loves to charm people into liking her and then stealing from them with her gold grin. She’s also known to bite the crap out of opponents.
“Naw, let’s send Nena,” Truck says. “Trade her for a better model.”
Truck says this loud enough for Nena to hear. Nena doesn’t react. Good girl. She’s got to learn these insults are only a small part of being one of us. Truck won’t relent until Nena gets mad or gives up.
“Remember the time when Manos threw a malasuerte into their dorms. It was raining, and them young girls ran out screaming when the malasuerte blew up,” Smiley says. “Manos was ruthless.”
Smiley and Shi walk side by side. Their shoulders bump into each other. Manos would have been in the middle. The three of them, always up to no good.
“The girl was notorious. Manos convinced me to give up my Codigo5G because she swore on everything mine was broken,”
Shi says. She tucks her long dark bangs behind her ears. Her frame is slender, which makes her quick and hard to restrain in a throwdown. “Made me think she was doing me a favor.”
“Or the time she tricked me into thinking ‘Made in China’ meant a girl named China made the item,” Smiley says. “Got so busted when I tried to trade a pair of jeans I found in an abandoned building and got nothing for them.”
I suppress a laugh. “Pay attention,” I say instead of joining in. Shi and Smiley straighten up and concentrate on patrolling. I hold back from them and take a breather. The pressure feels worse when they tell stories about Manos. Why didn’t I stop her from going? I was too busy having a good time. We have to be on alert 24-7. Always.
“Can’t stop thinking about her?” Truck stands by me. Her eyes are red from lack of sleep during the day.
“I won’t stop until the Deadly Venoms pay for the pain. For our pain.”
“We can’t afford to get sloppy,” I say. “The Deadly Venoms are in it to win it. Except they don’t care how they do it.”
“That’s why you’re Chief Rocka. You strategize while I flex.” She pulls off her helmet and goggles. Her dark brown twisted locks now reach the center of her back. I sense a hint of anger in her tone. She thinks I’m being a coward for holding back on the Deadly Venoms. I’m only thinking of our future. Déesse surely heard what went down with Manos. If
we retaliate outside of the throwdown, then we appear weak. We lack discipline. There’s no doubt the upcoming fight will land in our favor and Déesse will have no question as to who the better crew is.
I continue to walk.
In the distance I can hear music pumping. There’s a party going on in the Towers. It’s the same deal every night. Not only do Mega City’s chosen guards live there, but so do many other elite. Engineers who develop ways to use wind and solar for electricity, urban farmers who create our food pellets, scientists who maintain the sueños to ease people’s daily pain. If you’re smart and can actually better the city, then Déesse wants you close to her. It makes sense. Most toilers down here can barely read or write.
“Shi and Smiley, go patrol the north side,” I say. “Let’s finish this up.”
My two soldiers walk off. It’s just me and Truck. When I decided to create the LMCs, the first person I turned to was Truck. We’d survived the training camp together. She knew me, and I knew her. When I stepped to her about the idea, she didn’t even hesitate. I told her about my dream of living in the Towers. This way of life was meant to be only temporary. Although she didn’t quite see the future as I did, Truck trusted me enough to follow.
“Nalah, let’s hit up Luna Club,” Truck says. “We deserve it. Manos would have wanted us to.”
Truck is the only person allowed to call me by my real name, Nalah. On the occasions when she does, she speaks as a friend and not as my second-in-command. Hearing my name keeps me grounded, reminds me of our connection. I take a deep breath and slowly exhale. A cold drink and a hot dish. Maybe even a warm bath. The Luna Club sounds like the right type of action I need.
“Where’s Nena?” I say, suddenly realizing we hadn’t seen or heard her in a bit. The streetlamps she lit still glow. A few blocks away there’s only darkness. We listen. Do I hear a muffled cry? Truck gives me a look, and we bolt forward. We slow down when we hear Nena’s voice. I give Truck the nod, and she pulls back, finds a concrete slab to crouch down behind and waits. Ready.
“Help me, Chief Rocka,” Nena says. Her tiny voice is a scratchy note on this hateful night.
A few yards ahead of me is a guy. He has one arm wrapped around Nena’s neck. With his other arm he yanks her hand back so hard tears stream down her face. Dumb girl. How did she get caught up in this stupidity?
I knew in my gut Nena needed more training. She wasn’t ready. Nena wanted to prove she was down. Now look at her. I’ll need to knock this guy out because Nena can’t soldier. Damn her for being such a rookie.
“Please!” she yells.
I tilt my head and start strategizing.