District 21 by Indrapramit Das

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SUMMARY: A man returns to the industrial district he grew up in, now a feasting ground for anarchy and violence. Amongst the underground tenements of his childhood, there lies something he must yet come to terms with.

District 21

Like a tiny firecracker above his head, a moth flew into a light and fell smoking between his shoes, twitching its curling wings. He looked up through the grid of supports and ticking fluorescent lights over the pavement. Beyond the play of rust water and metal, steam rose up from the smokestacks in the distance to form vaguely luminescent clouds in the night sky, reflecting the lights of the city. Cold black turrets blinked silent messages, matching the faraway flicker of City-Watchers as they patrolled the skies beyond the district. He walked out to the corner and into the hesitant rain. Shoes clicking on damp reflections. The lights ticked, and insects snapped against them. He waited silently.
"A cigarette for your thoughts," said the woman on the curb, her hair thin and plastic red under the streetlights, like the unraveling scrubber by his kitchen sink. Her lipstick matched the color of her glo-dye.
"I don't smoke," he said, staring at the Kardos brand between her fingers. She plucked the blue salamander from her hair, letting her messy locks whisper across her shoulders. He watched as she wound the tail around her fingers, her thumb pushing the rubbery belly. A flame flicked out from between its open, gummy jaws and left the cigarette glowing.
"You might as well, here," she said, pointing to the sky. She took a drag, and clasped her hair together with the pseudo-salamander's sticky paws. It had Kardos-Dragon printed on its back.
"No pennies left, anyways," she muttered with smoke escaping her chapped lips, and walked away. He thought he saw the salamander look at him with its prismatic eyes as she turned the corner.

As he walked across the bridge over the magnetic train tracks, he could see Purist gangs with their firebrands and jet-bikes below. Slicing lines of light through the gloom as they raced up and down the tracks, their metal tipped boots clicking on metal and bikes roaring over gravel and concrete. The firebrands spun in bright arcs, shattering windows not already broken, on the old ticket booths.
Three of them were beating on a Hermaphro. Kicking and punching as they hooted out their night-calls to the misty air. One of them hit her with a brand, the flames quickly catching on her petroleum soaked body. They watched her run screaming down the tracks, like a shooting star in the shifting gloom. Feeling the instinctual surge of adrenalin, he walked faster. The shape of the burning figure left discs of blurry light where water clung to his glasses. What was a Hermaphro doing in this district? He wondered briefly. Perhaps they'd dragged her here from somewhere.
They had another victim, whom they had stripped. Two of the gang-boys were mock-fighting with portable fluorescents, the sharp tinkling of their sparring carrying across to the bridge. The blade of a knife flashed under the light of the firebrands and the bike-lamps. He looked away quickly, feeling sweat mingle with rainwater on his forehead. A thump resounded across the tracks as one of the portables shattered in a flurry of ozone tinged sparks.

What was he doing here? He wondered briefly, knowing all too well.

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