798 could still feel the scalding breath of Krohn, his landlord, on the hairs of his neck, but he was a Sentien, so he could be hundreds of feet behind him without 798 ever knowing. In the cramped apartment, he ran, though the possibility of such a distance was barely even possible. Sentiens were one of the many beasts from the surrounding landscapes that were forced into an urban environment due to pressure from governmental resource agencies. They were one of the better-off species, but you couldn’t say they were doing as well as most.
798 didn’t have the will to look back either, and it wasn’t just because there wasn’t going to be any aesthetically pleasing sights there. After his escape, Krohn would be glad his building at least had insurance, if nothing else. Row upon row of microchips barely poking out of hulking rectangular boxes, known to the world as Digimail receivers, blurred past 798 in a neon frenzy. They funneled him towards the once-ornate Portal to the outside world, and his ScanChip couldn’t have been more tightly gripped.
But there was a scrape. And then a claw. A thick ooze began to cover his leg, unmistakably coming from Krohn’s coagulant-producing pores — an intoxicating, dripping, suffocating ooze. 798 cursed himself for not remembering that evolved Sentiens never forgot their primitive ways. He trudged through the alien slime, but the more that he tried, only greater amounts seemed to appear. His face poured perspiration, and his throat became a dry, heaving pipe. The Portal was so close — and then he felt Krohn’s three ugly fingers descend upon his leg. 798 stopped. There was no use in fighting, but he didn’t want to look behind him at a face that said, Guess how high next month’s rent is going to be. He didn’t need to. The face came to him, or what Sentiens regarded as a face. It was as ugly as his failure of an escape.
Krohn heavily inhaled, and his grasp turned into a grip that demanded attention. “Seven.” A raspy exhale, followed by a rather desperate intake of air. “Nine.” The scales felt as if they were sliding into his skin, constricting his calf and making 798 wonder how such a feat could even be possible. He groaned in pain as Krohn released the full power of a Sentien’s morning breath upon him. “EIGHHHTTT.” It sounded like some sort of curse, the way he put it. “Your rent will always catch up to you, and so will your good buddy, Krohn, you Kirdral-”
798 was just as astonished as his landlord was, yet he was still too paralyzed to even say a word. A stop in the middle of such a sentence was something no one did just because they felt like it, especially not an angered Sentien. The malicious grin disappeared from his face, and his tight hold on 798 went completely slack. He began an obnoxious stroll down the dark halls of his high rise. Krohn looked back on his shareholder with a distaste that was anything but pitiful, and merely said, “Have a nice time getting yourself out of that.” And then he disappeared.
He did get himself “out of that” (with some improvised scraping), and now he was in a slightly better position (lying on his mattress, staring up at the Feels 2.3). The square machine had created a mixture of mostly conflicting deep scarlets and throbbing blues, and a rich violet where they met. 798 sighed with annoyance. Why did he ever spend his money on such a poorly-manufactured piece of marketing? He flipped to the sweaty crater his body had made in the cot, where the only color was darkness.
Just like the visual display engulfing his illegally-zoned Cube, though, 798’s thoughts persisted in a dance of deception. His income rudely side-stepped in front of his location, which was having a passionate argument with his horrible job, and his lack of knowledge marched in front of them all, trying to prove its superiority. But Krohn’s surprising behavior from earlier that day stole the show, doing cartwheels and leaps at the very tip of the stage, crying out to be seen. It was a disaster.
798’s mind decided to file through all of the possibilities of what the morning’s rather odd conundrum could have meant. Krohn could have just choked on a piece of something that had contributed to his usual mouth stench, or maybe he didn’t want to offend his delicate relationship he had with his tenants. Almost immediately, 798 pushed away those thoughts, though — Sentiens were widely known for their ability to digest mostly anything (something that particularly disturbed 798 from time to time), and Krohn cared about his tenants about as much as his diet. As long as Bits were being handed to him at regular intervals, he could be almost as happy as he was back in the wilderness. 798 forced the nagging thought into the back of his mind. He secretly hoped that one day, Krohn would be as irrelevant as the Feels 2.3 itself.
798 slogged his way through the morning routine. He shouldn’t have been, of course, for he was already going to be late to the factory. There was still a few sick hours on his side, though, and 798 was willing to sacrifice them even if it meant being demoted. The closer to being kicked out of the system altogether, the better. It meant a lower employment ranking in his Status, but not as detrimental as quitting.
798 had already gone through the high-rise’s facilities rooms earlier that morning, leaving him with nothing to do but stuff his DigiCard into his pocket, grab his Serellian knapsack, and head onto the balcony. There lay his Board, concealed from the public by an InvisiDome. He had had an InvisiFilm installed in his retina, making it so that only he could view inside of the Domes he placed. His sneakers, one by one, gripped the polished metal. 798 braced himself. The Board’s straps automatically connected, securing him to it and revving up the mechanical components. And then he was off, floating into the cavernous depths of the great web of a city. 798 didn’t even take note of his balcony entrance, wide open to the world.
The civilization of Krenst couldn’t be described in one word. It was the home to not thousands, but millions of intergalactic species, sprawling with their own unique types of homes, businesses, and entertainment (the last one usually required an extra amount of searching.) Bridges spanned from sector to sector, providing various modes of transportation for wherever you were going — but it wasn’t as if there were no questions asked. Not only Krenst, but the entire galaxy as well had one go-to policy: no ScanChip, no cigar. Virtually anywhere or anything required the small, easily forgotten piece of technology to be had.
798’s city made anywhere or anything look small, though. With its limitations, Krenst made almost anything that a five-year old could imagine possible. Among the many topics that the metropolis advertised were skyscraper-high travels above it via glass tubes, buffets of alien cuisine that you could swim in, and even a chance to challenge another city goer with the latest MechSuit. You would often find this out through the gargantuan holograms spanning the height of a high-rise, or the occasional shady character down on what Krenst inhabitants liked to call the “forest floor.”
All of the sudden, 798 had arrived. Speaking of advertising, he had to get back to his job: essentially a delivery boy/salesperson for the exotic snack company widely known as Kekutama, nothing even subtly impressive. Their company bore the mascot of an all too-happy human, put into a caricature that blushingly held out a pile of their popular kekutens. 798 despised it. He easily folded his Board into a pod no larger than his head, having arrived at the docking place for employees no less than a few krenektiks ago — Krenst’s way of tracking the time. He easily dropped the Board into his bag, which suctioned itself around it. 798 approached the welcome desk. It shone with a dull office light, but a startlingly bright pink face appeared via swivel chair in front of him. The face’s name was Yannik, and 798 had always dreaded the day when he would be greeted by her.
“Hi! And who are you then, young man?”
The condescending tone was dripping with cheeriness and an overdose of high-and-mightiness.
“Rayn Herron, Yannik.” 798 made sure to stress the last two syllables.
“Ohhh. Why it’s the delivery boy, isn’t it? Well, you can just head on over to the SpecScan as usual, honneyyy…”
798 visibly cringed at the end of the remark and barely nodded his head as he relieved himself at the nearest SpecScan. He held his ScanChip at the ready, glad that he at least didn’t have to exchange conversation with the grim face of one of Kekutama’s minimally-paid guards. The assembly line made its way into 798’s vision as he dodged the other workers around the bends and in the hallways, eager to receive the best deal he could get for the afternoon’s handouts.
A sharp left revealed the dull, low-ceilinged expanse of the Kekutama factory. For all of its public glory, there wasn’t much else to say about the company rather than the eccentrically toxic taste of its most popular snack. Two red signs hung by chains as low as they could go without hitting any of the employees: Shipments and Deliveries/Promotions. Several identical kiosks stood beneath the second one- each with its own cheery, bubbly vendor that gave you about as much attention as any passerby on the forest floor did. Just like Yannik, 798 thought. But that was what he always thought.
After he had received the kekutens and all of the sales promotion they could stuff in his face, it was a quick trip for 798 out of the factory. He had a suggested order for deliveries, but when he saw that the first one was nearly out of his sector, it immediately delivered itself to the nearest incinerator 798 could find without getting off of his board. He hugged the barely wrapped box next to his ribcage. It was lighter than his payroll.
His first destination, he decided, would be Trenkle — only a quaint, tucked away district like itself could cheer him up and out of the mood he was already in. It was an easy ride on the Board, one that made him wonder why the others didn’t get one themselves. It was a queer thing in itself, but today he particularly wondered about it. As he made his way through the entanglement of manufactured metal that was Krenst, 798 thought more deeply than he ever had about it — why did the other workers seem to just drone about, delivering their packages along the same route every day that he worked with them?
He was reluctant to push something else to the corner of his brain, but he couldn’t avoid the pressing reality of his job. He felt as if the thoughts were ready to burst out at any moment of their hiding places, if he didn’t get around to actually considering them sooner or later. 798 rarely spaced out on his delivery trips. They required a lot of attention, and a single wrong turn could mean anything from a head first crash into a building window to one into another Boarder. Neither was pretty. Yet here he was, the recent haze of his thoughts beginning to dissipate and give way to the immediacy of his location. 798 recognized the travel-by-air sign to Trenkle, but not his surroundings. The buildings were still towering, the bridges continued to be long, and the people around him ceased to be polite in the given way that Trenklites are. None of this should even be remotely true, 798 thought. Then again, he had never taken the time to explore the district as much as he could. More InfoScreens appeared, in many manners of size and importance, and they all unmistakably told the same story. 798 could be no closer to where he needed to be. With a sigh, he swooped down below to the avenues of the supposed Trenkle, but this was one more thought that begged not to be pushed away. He paced towards the nearest gold-printed set of letters he could find. More often than not they meant a Unit building, and 798 prayed that his mentality would be saved. He brushed through the grim crowd, and peering into the shining doorway the hopeful words Trenkle 879 illuminated his eyesight. He nearly whooped in excitement. The Portal guard looked strangely at 798, and inquired with a stony face, “Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to show me your ScanChip.”
“Oh! Um, I mean, here it is… sir.” 798 awkwardly reached into his knapsack, struggling to produce the square card in a fashionable manner. “Here it is, sir, I mean, here’s my shtipcan… ” he blurted nervously, then mentally scorned his stupidity.
The guard raised an eyebrow that managed to peek above his opaque glasses. For a second, 798 wondered why the guard would even need them — only one of the planet’s three suns was visible on an overcast day like today. Then again, maybe it was just another one of those strange “security measures” Krenst buried the authority in.
“Mmmm… a satisfactory. Well, it’s viable. Reason for entry?” the guard pushed.
“Well, sir, I’m a delivery boy for, um, Kekuten, you see.”
798 held out the grubby packages and tried to glorify them as much as possible, but he would have to find a better title than delivery boy sooner or later. The age label suggested by Kekuten’s workers annoyed the Krong out of him.
798 wondered what those mysterious eyes were doing behind the film of the glasses.
“Proceed to entrance.”
He confidently inserted his ScanChip into the scanner and waited for the light of the translucent box to flash green. But the ScanChip just stayed there. It was almost as if it was frozen in time, transfixed in the machine, never to be processed. 798 waited for the comfort that the access of his ScanChip gave him, but none came.
He scratched his neck nervously. “Huh.”
He looked at the guard for consolation, but only received a harsh and suspecting glare, if sunglasses could be harsh and suspecting. 798 gulped, and the saliva almost refused to go down. And when the scanner made the buzzing denial of a defect, it didn’t help his look when the saliva went the other way up, sending him sputtering and red-eyed in front of the guard.
“I-I’m so s-sorry-”
The guard cut him off. “Get out. Now.”
“I said get out!”
But before the guard could practically push 798 back onto the sparkling, well-kept streets of a so-called Trenkle without his delivery boxes, a magnificent lady appeared in the Portal.
“No need, sirs. I’ll be taking the boxes.”
She had on a flowing sapphire-and-ivory dress and was wearing heels that 798 could’ve sworn were cut from pure jade. She had a deep black complexion, darker than the pure of midnight, and milky white eyes with perfectly piercing, green eyes set in the middle. Her hair was a bush of perfectly manicured, springy curls just as black as her skin. 798 was lost for words. He blinked a few times to see if maybe he was in some sort of haze, but every time he did so, he was only more taken aback by her beauty. She looked at both of them with pursed lips that twisted into little upward corners at their ends. The guard saluted her.
She was royalty, except she didn’t even need the crown. The lady returned the greeting with a nod.
“Robert,” she said curtly, then stooped down to pick up the boxes.
For a second, 798 thought maybe he was staring at her for a little too long, because she stole a glance directly at him, and her pupils seemed to slice into his soul. But then she went back to the boxes, and almost stepped through the portal, but halted in front of it.
“Oh,” she said. “And thank you, Rayn.”
It was like 798 had fallen off of his Board in the midst of a Channel, tumbling down to the city’s common streets with a sudden lurch. She’d said it as plain as day, too — his very own first name. 798 would’ve run after her, babbling like a madman. But he wasn’t sure he’d ever have the words to do so. Out of the corner of his eye, though, he did notice one more thing about the mysterious woman. On her ebony heel, just as it was lifted from the jade of the sandal, he saw three ivory numbers inked in stern contrast: 346.
798 ran from the establishment with a ripping ferocity, tearing through the throng of supposed Trenklites and onto the Channel release dock. He practically threw the Board on the metal and immediately commanded it to hover. He stepped on the machine before it could even analyze the order. Without thinking, he headed to the nearest restaurant entrance, pushed himself onto the landing pad, and laid down. He breathed, once. Twice. And then three times. 798 was about to indulge in what all this could possibly mean for the meager four years of his life he remembered, but the monotone voice of a Zitza employee greeted him from the Channel-Serv speaker behind him.
“Hello, how can I help you today? Don’t forget our newest special, Zitza Twirls. They come in flavored packaging!”
Startled, 798 spoke the first thing off the top of his head. “I’ll… um… I’ll have a Zitza Pie Special.”
798 was so frazzled that he forgot to even say please. He could almost imagine the anonymous employee raising her eyebrow behind the customer speaker.
“Mmkay, head to the Zitza-Serv counter and pay 15.5 Bits. Thank you. Next customer?”
798 sighed. Did he even have the money to pay for such an item? He scrounged his pockets, producing 10.2 Bits in a heap of multicolored squares, circles, and triangles. He could use his ScanChip account, but that would cut into his meager savings from his Kekuten income once per krenek. His job. He did have to get back to that, didn’t he? 798 was startled by the blaring voice of a customer behind him. The voice seemed to barrel towards him in boastful rage.
“Hey, c’mon, man! There’s more in this city than you!”
Taken aback by the throatiness that accompanied the statement, 798 didn’t have to force himself to move forward to the Zitza-Serv counter. A hologram of what was probably the woman behind the speaker appeared in a grimy Serv’s uniform. “Produce method of payment into receiver, and wait for order to appear.”
The lady’s hands seemed to be working at something unseen beyond the holoscreen, and 798 guessed that his pie hadn’t exactly been receiving the most thought before he had come to the counter. Oh well. The holoscreens gave Servs an eternity to work on the actual meal and talk while they didn’t have to appear in the flesh, probably causing for some “You’re fired!” worthy material.
He glanced at the rectangular edges of the Scan Chip and thought about what he would have to make up for using it for the pie. He shouldn’t even be buying food during work hours, especially not when lunch had already passed. He reluctantly inserted it into the receiver, wincing as the numbers were displayed boldly in red lettering on the display. He hadn’t even known that he’d already had a negative amount due in his account, and this sort of deficit wasn’t exactly helping.
Before the machine could lock onto his ScanChip for further examination at the counter, 798 ripped it out of the receiver with blood rushing to his ears. They couldn’t find out, not now, not now, not now. Suddenly, a steaming sack of extremely low-grade Zitza appeared at the counter.
“Thank you for your business. Sir, could you insert your ScanChip?” The Serv pushed in an assertive voice that 798 was nearly taken aback by.
But 798 had already snatched the bag, hopped on his Board, and zoomed out of the filthy building, not stopping to be reprimanded by the Zitza-Servs. He didn’t stop until he was out of what he thought was Trenkle, the business of the city behind him, and only the barrier between him and the Outlands. His heart rate began to slow, and he stopped near an unoccupied fence of a Registrator. He finally tapped the Board with his foot once, lowering it to the ground. 798 stared mindlessly at the bright, glowing screen of the Registrator.
“Registrate yourself today and enjoy a spectacular wilderness safari filled with wonderful animals and experiences in the Outlands!” the speaker below the Registrator’s screen blared out, amplified by the silence of this part of the city limits.
On a day like today, only a few schooling groups would come out here on some city-sponsored trip, but other than that, there was barely anyone that could find the time to come into the Outlands during the Krekten. During the Krektend, however, the Registrators were practically glitching out because of everyone that was pushing in front of one another to get to the next Outlands transport. What the Registrators didn’t tell them was the surprising percentage of animals that were illegally imported and didn’t actually live in the Outlands, nor the nearly abusive tactics that were used to keep them from wandering off into the wilderness.
798 suddenly remembered his Zitza Pie and, without thinking, scarfed it down. He hadn’t noticed how cold it had already become, or how hungry he had grown during his incredible escapade away from his work. Remembering what he had really set out to do in the first place — actually deliver Kekutens — he checked the CNow on his wrist. 3:46. He nearly choked on his Zitza. He immediately stuffed down the rest of it the best he could while rushing his Board’s reboot system, and was zipping past Trenkle’s limits in record time. Not that he’d ever tried to before. He’d never been this late for the daily collection of unsold Kekutama boxes, which also heralded him being passed through the SpecScan again, which didn’t spell out satisfied for Yannik and the rest of the employees at the Kekutama facility. When one of them was the unlucky one to have to stay behind just for a single worker that wasn’t on time, there was no doubt that they would report it to the head managers immediately. 798 was already 46 Krentiks behind.
“Hey! Where do you think you’re going, mister?”
That was just one of the many retorts that whizzed past 798 as he broke every speed limit ever to exist on Krenst’s many Channels. There were only twelve more of them to pass before he reached the main drag that the Kekuten facility was located at, and he didn’t want to see himself waiting for a stoplight anytime soon. Almost like karma, a flashing red strobe appeared immediately above 798’s head, but he took no notice of it, not wanting to think of the consequences. But as soon as he heard the wailing siren behind him, and the authoritarian voice of a Channel Surveyor, he knew his wrong.
798 quickly surveyed his surroundings. From here, there were a few alleys he could duck into, but they would only stretch out his escape from the Surveyor, not prevent it. And then he remembered. Left on Krenst Main, three Channels forward, a right on Fourth Street, and then another six channels forward. There’s a cove for the Outlandish, an old bar that the locals go nuts for. Go in there, where the cops won’t. 798’s mind was still hazy and unfocused with the memory of the employee he had met so long ago, and struggled to remember his name. A red nametag flashed across his mind. A light turned green. The Surveyor’s voice got louder, and louder, and louder, until it seemed that they were shouting directly into 798’s ear. Hi, my name — 798 started in the direction of the Outlandish, blankly. Is Ris — a turn on Quick Street. A honking vehicle in front of 798’s face. — Car.
Hi, my name is Riscar.
There was a blinking Outlandish sign in front of 798’s in jagged, unruly letters. The Surveyor was practically mectometers away from 798. He dashed inside without thinking, blending in with the outside crowd, and then disappeared into the dark, dark, alleyway.
The Outlandish wasn’t actually in the alleyway itself — it was to the side, with the identical logo sprawling above a decrepit door frame. 798 entered and wondered immediately if the Outlandish was even an actual place. There was nothing where he was standing. Just nothing. It was nearly pitch-black inside, save for an actual candle standing on the simplest nightstand 798 had ever seen. The candle burned with authenticity and not the harsh glow produced by the blaring displays of the outside world. It held down a curled, burnt piece of what looked like parchment, which was halfway covered in a puddle of wax. There were some names on the parchment, none of which 798 knew. A voice came from the midst of the darkness, startling him and raising the hair on his spine.
“So you want to get into the Outlandish, punk?”