Chapter 1: One Moment

Kadamba Vorhoor casually kicked his feet up onto his desk at the back of the classroom and leaned back in his chair. The smug look on his face stemmed from an abundant confidence built through sports, academics, and a new successful business. In two days, the school year would be over, leaving him only one more year of required schooling before his advanced education started. The only thing standing between him and a wildly successful future was the slim possibility that one of his customers might die.

None of that mattered as he slowly rocked back and forth on the rear legs of his chair. His mind drifted far away from the confines of the science classroom. The droning of the teacher’s voice nothing more than background noise as his imagination focused on the latest, most essential thing in his life – Jundana Korhart.

She was stunning in every way ­– radiant dark skin, long and silky hair always perfectly framing her high cheekbones and piercing dark eyes. Her sleek, athletic build formed by running track and gymnastics. Every movement she made was graceful, and somehow both delicate and forceful at the same time. Kadamba, who usually went by the shortened version, Ka, wondered if there was ever a more beautiful creature on the entire planet of Koranth.

Only two hours before, Jundana bumped into Kadamba in the cafeteria. The box containing her drink flipped through the air, managing to somehow land perfectly upright on Kadamba’s tray. Unfazed, he simply smiled in her direction.

 “Nice shot,” Kadamba said, trying to sound as charming as he could, “It seems we must’ve been destined to run into each other like this today …”

“Sorry, Ka, I didn’t mean to bump into you. And seriously – you’re not that smooth,” she replied with a smile.

“No need to apologize,” Kadamba responded, handing her drink back. “You ready for tomorrow’s test in Lormate’s class?”

“I’m about as ready as I’ll ever be. I think he just enjoys watching us suffer.”

“You got that right. No way he even begins to care about us. He just wants to drag us through the material, unconcerned whether we understand it or not.” Looking at her, Kadamba realized that the time was right. He’d always liked Jundana but being so close to her was more intense than he’d expected. Trying to act as casual as he could, he shrugged. “He’s just a jackass, and we’re outta here in a few days.”

“Yeah, that’s the truth,” she agreed.

“So, you want to chill on Schmarlo’s Landing sometime?” He hoped that he hadn’t sounded too desperate. Every nerve in his body fought not to wince as a response began to form on her lips. He was sure that he was about to get rejected and squashed by this beautiful creature.

“I’d like that. You wanna go today after school?”

“That’s perfect. I gotta little business to deal with first, but I’ll meet you there.”

As Jundana walked away, Kadamba realized he wasn’t breathing. As the air came rushing back into his lungs and he almost shouted out loud, but instead spoke softly, so that only he could hear, “I’m gonna rock your world, girl.”

*****

“Mr. Vorhoor! Get your feet on the floor and walk them to the front of this classroom, now!” Mr. Lormate barked at Kadamba, shaking him out of his pleasant reliving of the fateful encounter with Jundana.

Kadamba rolled his eyes back in his head, relishing the thought that he would only have to deal with this jerk of a teacher for a couple more days. He slapped his feet hard on the shiny surface of the floor, jolting the entire class to attention. Standing up, he tilted his head, lifting his chin higher and rotating his neck. The vertebrae in his neck popped loudly. The smirk on his face widened as he turned his head the other way, sending out another series of cracks.

Mr. Lormate glared at Kadamba and swept his hand across the podium, tapping his fingers in a rehearsed pattern. From the flat, institutional-gray wall behind him, a three-dimensional image of a bargabuko, a toad-like creature that covered most of the tropical belt of Koranth, began to appear. The nasty, little, pus-dipping, foul-smelling creatures were the bane of every teenage science student across the planet. At least, this one seemed to be a holographic, visual-only representation of the little animal.

The image of the bargabuko began to grow in size and move outward from the wall. Then the putrid smell hit the students full-on. This one was more than just visual-only. A holographic lab table began to rise up from the floor next to the podium, where Mr. Lormate sat on a stool, like an emperor gazing over his subservient peasants. The bargabuko grew twenty times larger than a real one and landed with a splat on the table. It bellowed out a croak that seemed like a hundred times louder than the creature’s true croak, followed by its annoying belching sound and a spray of blue-green pus that landed on the students in the front row.

Sorenha Woohurra screeched as the pus hit her in the chest. As always, she was dressed impeccably, in a tight-fitting, one-piece pink outfit, with frills ruffling out from her waist, a style in vogue with famous music celebrities. Curhuck Lhahnid cussed under his breath as he wiped the sticky, blue-green pus from his cheek. No one in the class could stand Mr. Lormate and having the bargabuko generated in a full holographic reality furthered every student’s distaste for the teacher.

Mr. Lormate’s teeth began to show in a crooked smile as he raised his gaze from Sorenha to Kadamba. “Well, Mr. Vorhoor, do you just plan to let this bargabuko decorate your classmates with its saliva, or will you get up here and dispatch it for us? You are so relaxed back there that I have every confidence that you can open the specimen and identify each part of its respiratory system for our illumination.”

Kadamba rapidly tapped on his desk with his fingers, wanting to get this over as quickly as possible. A shape like a knife began rising from the desk’s surface. His hand went to the handle of the blade, with his forearm hiding its size. He grasped the handle, keeping the large blade out of sight. The correct protocol was to generate a surgeon’s scalpel, slice the animal’s throat, and then dissect the creature. But not today.

Kadamba was tired of Mr. Lormate’s nasty, arrogant, and superior attitude. The blade in his hand was more like a large military, survival-style knife. Kadamba’s fingers felt comfortable in the form-fitted handle. The tip of the blade grazed near the Kadamba’s elbow, as he strode towards the front of the classroom. Kadamba didn’t care if what he was about to do would get him in trouble. He was on cloud nine. He had a date with Jundana in a few hours, and school break was only two days away. This would be worth it.

Two strides from the podium, he raised his hand above his head, revealing the deadly weapon. The expression on Mr. Lormate’s face was beyond epic. The teacher’s jaw dropped, slightly to the left, with his chin pulling back towards his neck. His eyes doubled in size. Kadamba could only hope that the disgusting smell in the room was rising not only from that nasty bargabuko but also from the mess that he hoped the teacher was making in his pants.

With his final stride to the table, Kadamba brought his arm down quickly and as strongly as he could. He tensed every muscle in his core, even pulling himself slightly into a squatting position to drive the point of the knife squarely through the center of the bargabuko’s skull. The thud was deafening as the creature’s chin slammed into the table, driven downward by the intensity of the stroke. The blade guard of the knife was partially crushed into the top of the bargabuko’s head, and the blade of the knife had driven clean through the head of the animal with its tip sticking out from the bottom of the table.

Mr. Lormate’s expression changed from shock to outrage almost instantaneously, but as he opened his mouth to scream at Kadamba, the classroom erupted in a chorus of cheers, shouts, and laughter. Slamming his hand onto the podium and pounding it a few times, with his face turning from a deep red to almost blue, Mr. Lormate glared at Kadamba. The bargabuko, its spattered blood and pus, the lab table, and even the terrible odor—disappeared. The classroom became silent as the teacher stood from his stool, his face hardening like stone.

“Mr. Vorhoor.” The words hissed through Mr. Lormate’s clenched teeth. He looked down at the podium and tapped his fingers very delicately. The wall behind him shimmered as it changed from a dull grey to a semi-translucent surface. A door-sized opening appeared, and a bright red line began to glow on the floor in the hallway leading away from the classroom. The teacher’s gaze met Kadamba’s, and Kadamba knew he had probably gone too far. “Goodbye, Mr. Vorhoor.”

*****

The school’s superintendent went easy on Kadamba. After all, the faculty and staff disliked Mr. Lormate too, and only two days were left in the school year. Ka would have to spend two extra days at school, helping clean up the campus and preparing it for the break. Not even really a severe punishment.

Kadamba walked out of the school and onto the wide, translucent pedestrian walkway some twenty stories above the ground. Living in Stujorkian City, the capital of the country of Lamaratia, a metropolis with more than 135 million residents, was all that Kadamba had ever known, and it was home. He loved the towering buildings of the central city, many covering multiple city blocks and stretching over two hundred stories into the sky. Like all major cities, the free transportation system was efficient and vast. He could wander and explore for hours on end. The pedestrian walkway spanned most of the central city. Below the walkway was a system of suspended, high-speed shuttle trains. Once the shuttle trains left the city, they dropped to ground level and fanned out into the vast plains that made up the metropolis.

On almost every corner of every block in the central city stood lift platforms that dropped to ground level from the pedestrian walkway. Adjacent to every platform was a wide, open staircase, leading to Stujorkian City’s sub-city. The sub-city, nearly as large as the central city itself, burrowed over forty stories below the ground. Warwon’s Deli was Kadamba’s destination. The deli sat thirty stories below ground in a large shopping plaza of narrow streets. While much of the sub-city was well-lit and open, Warwon’s Deli was at the end of a poorly-lit, narrow alley, in a part of the sub-city that someone like Kadamba should honestly try to avoid.

Kadamba took a deep breath, tried to put on the coldest, most serious face that he could, and began walking towards the deli. It was just like many delis with an open display of meats, cheeses, and other foodstuff that a patron could buy and take home. There was also a large display behind the counter that listed names, pictures, and prices of sandwiches and meals that could be prepared for takeaway. If you squeezed past the other customers, maybe you could find a table in the back. Kadamba didn’t bother to order. Pushing his way through the cranky, ill-mannered customers, he headed to the table at the far end of the narrow shop.

Two men, dressed in black, loose-fitting garb, played a card game at that final table. One of them wore dark glasses, despite that fact that it was already dark in the back corner of the shop. Neither looked up or acknowledged Kadamba as he approached. Here in Stujorkian City, weapons were prohibited. Only Corporate military were allowed to own or use any firearm that projected lasers, or energy blasts. In that dark corner of the sub-city, laws mattered less. Kadamba could see the handles of guns protruding from the shoulder holsters, under the black jackets of both men. Kadamba stood silently at the table, hoping this would go well.

“Looks like a little bargabuko found its way into the sewer,” one of the men remarked to the other, without looking up from his cards.

“And it’s a damn pretty one too,” responded the other.

“Oh, yeah, the Doctor, he likes them young and pristine. Sells better. Seems better. Thinks it’s lower risk.”

The man without glasses cocked his head towards Ka, looking him up and down.

“I’m here to see Doctor Z.” The words fell flat, sounding weak coming out of Kadamba’s mouth. Both men chuckled.

“If you ain’t here to see Doc Z, standing there in your pretty schoolboy clothes, carrying a schoolboy backpack, then you’d be in for an experience that you don’t even know exists.” As the words oozed out of his mouth, the other man turned in his chair towards Kadamba. He slowly removed the glasses from his face and stared directly into Kadamba’s eyes. Inside, the teenager was terrified. He wanted to turn and run but didn’t dare. With every bit of courage he could muster, Kadamba maintained the man’s gaze, repeating, “I’m here to see Doctor Z.”

The wall behind the table began to shimmer and turned semi-translucent. Kadamba could see that the room behind the wall looked like a spacious family room, with large sofas, a few chairs, and a table in the back. Kadamba could make out the shapes of three men standing on the back wall, looking as ominous as the two brutes sitting at the table. As an opening appeared in the wall, Kadamba knew that the man sitting comfortably on one of the large sofas was Doctor Z.

“Glad to see you found my office,” proclaimed Doctor Z, as he stood up and walked to the opening. “Please, come on in, and let’s do a little business.”

Kadamba stepped through the opening, and it vanished. When he looked back, the wall had transformed into a beautiful scene of a lake in the mountains.

“You seem so nervous. Please have a seat, my young friend,” said Doctor Z, his words as smooth as silk. His smile seemed to simply exude a sense of ease and comfort, but at the same time hid something menacing.

“Thanks,” replied Kadamba as he sat down tensely on one of the couches.

“I’m glad we’re getting an opportunity to meet face to face. You know that we’re very comfortable and completely safe here, Ka. Do you mind if I call you ‘Ka’?” asked Doctor Z.

“Okay,” replied Kadamba.

“Good. Now that we’ve dispensed with the formalities – how’s your business?” Doctor Z inquired softly, but it felt more like a demand. All of the pleasantries and courtesy evaporated as Kadamba looked into the dark, piercing eyes of his host.

This was Kadamba’s first time actually meeting Doctor Z. Only a few months before, Kadamba had been on one of his many solo trips exploring the sub-city, looking for choice, out-of-the-way places to knock back, without so many adult prying eyes. Schmarlo’s Landing was an excellent and favorite place to hang out, but it was 118 stories up, and he always seemed to run into someone’s mom or dad or family friend. On top of that, once in a while, it was fun to go underground.

A man who called himself Fuentes had walked up and sat down at the table where Kadamba was eating alone, in a vast open food court. At first, Kadamba was startled. A strange man in a strange place should set off warning bells galore, but Fuentes was smooth, smoother than anyone Kadamba had ever met. They chatted for a while, and Kadamba revealed more about himself than he ever should, but he didn’t even realize what he had done. By the end of the conversation, Kadamba had a small box in his hands.

Inside the box were six small packages that could be peeled open to reveal a rectangular adhesive strip with a sizable bump in the middle. Kadamba had heard of these – project Rs, the rummbie dummbies, sweetum’s ride, and a host of other street names. It was rath, a relative newcomer to the underworld drug market. Stujorkian City, like everyplace else, had a thriving illegal drug scene. It was the same everywhere on Koranth: Some drugs were unlawful, and some were legal and regulated.

The box and its contents were a gift from Fuentes to Kadamba. He could simply enjoy them alone or with his friends. He could even sell them if he liked. There were no strings attached. They were just a gift. If he wanted more, he would have to buy them. Before he left, Fuentes told Kadamba where he could be found next week if Kadamba wanted more, but he would need to bring money. Each ride with sweetum would cost twelve Konnary.

Kadamba began meeting regularly with Fuentes, always someplace different, but always in some out-of-the-way, very sketchy place in the sub-city.

Almost like a bolt of lightning, Kadamba had gone from being just another face in the crowd at his school to being a popular kid. He even made some new friends at other schools. He loved the popularity and relished the attention that those little adhesive strips were showering upon him.

 Only a week before, Fuentes instructed Kadamba to meet him in a very different location. The smell of seafood outside of the packaging plant was almost overwhelming, and that was before Fuentes had opened the nondescript, metal door. Struggling not to gag on the pungent odor in the air, Kadamba had followed Fuentes through a huge room, passing by long tables piled high with fish and other creatures that Kadamba couldn’t identify. The workers, dressed in blood-spattered white smocks, barely even seemed to notice the pair as they passed by, on their way to the offices, situated in the middle of the building.

As they left the packaging plant and began to breathe the more palatable air, Fuentes praised Kadamba for how well he had handled this meeting. Although Kadamba didn’t completely understand, the man that they had just meet with, Vratar, saw potential in the young teen and set up this meeting with a man named Doctor Z.  

Kadamba cleared his throat. “Business is good, sir. It’s really good.”

The smile on Doctor Z’s face spread even wider. He loved hearing that from any of the many teenagers that this branch of his organization recruited and trained. These kids were so easy to manipulate and use.

“I need twenty more,” Kadamba declared, pulling a stack of Konnary from his backpack.

“My dear young friend!” exclaimed Doctor Z. “You must be one brilliant, smart, resourceful businessman. I am impressed.”

“Thanks.”

Doctor Z, having taken the stack of bills from Ka, thumbed through them quickly. When he was done, he smiled and held the money up. One of the brutes from the back of the room came forward, took the stack, and returned to the rear of the room. He waved his hand across the wall, and an opening appeared, revealing a bookshelf covered in large stacks of Konnary. He placed Kadamba’s payment on a stack, waved his hand, and the opening disappeared.

“Yes, yes, my young friend. Business is good.” Doctor Z stared at Kadamba for a few moments and began rubbing his chin. A faint smile started and then spread across his face as if he suddenly had a wonderfully insightful idea. “I see so much see potential in you and in our new relationship, Ka.”

“Thank you, sir. I hope we can both keep making good money,” Kadamba answered, not knowing exactly what to say.

“Oh, I know we will.” Doctor Z gestured again, and one of the other men in the back of the room walked forward with a box. He placed the box in Kadamba’s hands with a smile.

“Thank you,” Kadamba told him, “I’ll let Fuentes know when I need more.”

“Please. You need to open the box before you leave,” instructed Doctor Z. “You and I are at the beginning of a new partnership.”

Kadamba, looking at the box in his hands, sat back down. Opening the box, he looked inside. It was filled with rath, but it was evident that it was more than twenty packets.

“You’re looking at two hundred packages of rath,” explained the Doctor, smiling.

“I only gave you one hundred and forty Konnary. I can’t buy this much.”

“It’s alright, Ka. I’m extending a line of credit to you.”

Kadamba was stunned. He’d never seen this many rath in one place, and it was in his hands. Doctor Z smiled and continued, “You need to be back here in two weeks. Your line of credit is due then, Ka, and we’ll see where we are on continuing to expand our relationship.”

Kadamba placed the box in his backpack and walked towards the wall with the mountain lake. The wall began to shimmer, turned semi-translucent, and the opening reappeared. Kadamba stepped through, and it reformed into a wall behind him. Once again, he was standing at the table with the two menacing-looking brutes. Kadamba, looking down at them, realized they both were grinning.

“Seems the Doc likes you, boy. He’s a nice guy. Wouldn’t you say so?” asked one of the thugs.

“Yes. He sure is,” replied Kadamba. He could feel his heart beginning to beat faster.

“You understand the Doctor is almost always nice to everyone,” said the thug who wore the dark glasses. Kadamba realized the brute was looking across the table at his grimacing partner. Then Kadamba realized why the two were so smug. The man without the glasses had drawn his laser gun, which was mostly hidden under the table, but Kadamba could see that it was pointed directly at him.

The man began to remove his glasses once again. “See. Here’s how it works. In case you don’t quite get it. Doc Z gets to be nice, and if things don’t go his way, we make them go his way. Doctor Z always gets his. Do you get it now?”

Kadamba nodded his head affirmatively, walking around the table quickly, trying as hard as he could not trip and end up sprawled out on the floor. He was trembling on the inside but didn’t dare show it. He simply walked out of Warwon’s Deli, more than eager to get out of the sub-city. He quickly made his way to ground level and took a shuttle train to the stop for the massive building known as Schmarlo Tower.

The lobby of the building was enormous, stretching from the eighteenth to the twenty-fourth floor. Kadamba made his way to the bank of lifts and entered a large, crowded elevator that zoomed directly to Schmarlo’s Landing.

All the lift’s four walls and its door were transparent. “Oh my, oh my” exclaimed the woman next to Kadamba, as the elevator reached its destination, emerging in the middle of Schmarlo’s Landing. They were surrounded by a green park, with children playing and people adorning the many benches in the park. The Landing covered half the surface area of the building, had three parks, a huge playground, and on both ends were numerous food vendors, along with a considerable scattering of tables and chairs. The entire landing was contained by a nearly invisible force-field cover that protected visitors from the elements. The other half of the building continued to rise another fifty-eight stories into the wispy clouds that had formed on what was otherwise a beautiful day.

“Hey, Ka, my man!” a nearby voice called.

“What’s up on this fine day, my man Stelky?” Kadamba replied, still trying to shake off the fear of being entangled with Doctor Z and his brutes.

“I got someone that wants to meet you. You know, a new potential friend.”

“Stelky, my man, let us meet this person.”

A serious look swept across Stelky’s face. “Ka, listen, I’m just making the introduction. Dude wouldn’t leave me alone until I brought him to you.”

“Alright, we’ll just see how this goes down,” Kadamba assured him.

Kadamba had only met Stelky a few weeks before. He went to another school, but “business” had made them “friends.” Stelky might not have been real smart, but he knew lots of people, and most kids knew Stelky could be trusted to be discrete. He wasn’t interested in handling any of the rath himself. He just wanted a little finder’s fee for each transaction that Kadamba made with his introductions.

A young boy, about 10-years old, walked up to the two of them, obviously trying to act older than he really was. “Little dude! What the hell? Get back to the playground and ride the slide or something!” barked Kadamba when he saw the boy.

“My money is as good as anyone’s,” the boy asserted.

“It ain’t about money, kid. You’re just too damn young to be messing around with rath,” Kadamba explained firmly.

“Am not! You want my money or not?”

For a few moments, Kadamba thought about the “credit” that Doctor Z had just extended. He had never had so much rath, and he HAD to sell it. But this kid was just way too young to be messing with the stuff. Wasn’t he? Rath was pretty tame compared to many of the drugs out there, or at least Ka thought so. It just mellowed you out, made you happy, and made lots of things seem really funny.

“No way, dude. It ain’t happening,” proclaimed Kadamba.

“I’ll pay thirty Konnary each for three of them,” stated the boy defiantly.

“Ain’t no way you’re walking around with almost a hundred in your little pockets.”

The boy looked around. No one was nearby. He reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out a stack of bills. Kadamba looked at the money, obviously struggling with what to do. He usually sold each packet for twenty, maybe even eighteen, to consistent customers.

Kadamba took a deep breath. “Alright, you win, but, little dude, you gotta be careful.”

• • •

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