Graffiti - Chapter 5: Smells Like Teen Spirit/Nirvana

As Vic opened his eyes, his head lying on his largest bag as he spent the majority of his night in a vacant alleyway of the Strays, he wasn't expecting to be greeted with the sight before him.  Four rather skinny, heavily tattooed skinheads stood in a circle around the wall that he was lying against. Their skin was pale and their cheeks hollow; their clothes were shabby and unkempt, crude and barely presentable.  At the sight of them, Vic jumped from the bag in surprise while one of them, the supposed leader, lifted his hand to calm the boy down.  He sported a thick scruffy beard with a jagged scar over his left eyebrow that made his left eyelid slightly less ajar than his right.

"Whoa, slow down, cowboy," the man muttered with a devious and untrustworthy grin.  "Don't want to damage any of those valuable parts, kid."

Vic's eyes darted back and forth between them anxiously.  "Wh-who are you?"

"Some lucky sons of bitches, thats what we are," another of the skinheads replied, hopping on the back of his heel happily.  "Somebody get in contact with Mr. Panache.  When he finds out we got him another live one, he's gonna supply us with Smack up to our necks."

"Yeah," the leader said slowly, eying the boy curiously.  "We've definitely hit the jackpot."

"What are you talking about?" Vic asked, swallowing hard with worry.

"What are you, one of the Marker boys?"

"N-no....I don't know what that is."

The leader exchanged confused looks with his cohorts before looking back at the boy.  "I guess we have a lost one here.  Mr. Panache usually prefers a Marker kid to get back at those bastards, but I'm sure he'll suffice for the man either way."

"Who's Mr. Panache?" Vic asked with worry.

The leader raised an eyebrow and smirked.  "Somebody that would want someone like you.  I think you'll do perfectly, kid."

The leader strolled toward Vic, who he felt his back press against the alley wall behind him.  His adrenaline was spiking.  His eyes darted around the alley for anything that could help him get out of this tight spot and eventually they fell on a broken beer bottle that was shattered from the bottom up lying by the empty trash can beside him.  Vic stretched for it and once it was in his grip, he launched forward and struck at the skinhead closest to the exit of the alleway.  Vic drove the bottom of the bottle into his stomach as the skinhead doubled over and then proceeded to shove him out of the way as he sprinted for the exit, the others rushing after him closely.


"This one's for all the leaders
Let's all change the world
Change the world"

The music of Damian Marley and Nas blasted out of the stereo that rested on Shane's shoulder as he stood with his left arm curled onto the top of the system and his other hand in his pocket.  He stood on the top of one of the half pipes, staring out on one of three skateparks located in the Strays area as an assembly of his colleagues glided across the surface of the concrete on their skateboards, rollerblades, and BMX bikes.  The park was covered to the brim with graffiti tags, several of which had been laid by the Marxmin themselves.  Shane's own skateboard, spraypainted with the Anarchy symbol on its bottom surface, was under his right foot and he watched his unit closely as they laughed, conversed, and challenged each other to push their limit.  Shane was currently wearing on his head the bandana-tied bowler hat that Houston had left behind, and sported it proudly in his memory, adjusting it on his head for a more comfortable fit.

Shane could see Smart Alec coasting in his direction on his own skateboard.  It was peculiar, but expected of him at this point by the others, that he wasn't wearing weather-appropriate attire.  With the sun out and baring down hard enough to make everyone in the park sweat profusely, Alec would continually wear thick clothing, much like the baggy jeans, thick long-sleeved shirt, and decal-less jersey he was sporting at the moment.  His dreadlocks had been tied up and forced under a large rastafarian beanie hat.  Even with this heavily covered apparel, Alec never showed any signs of fatigue and never acquired a heatstroke, despite wearing this type of clothing frequently during the summer months.  He pushed off and slid up the pipe onto the flat bank beside Shane, who nodded politely.

"Want me to take that off your hands, bruddha?" Alec asked with a smile, reaching up for the stereo.

"Sure," Answered Shane.  He lifted it from his shoulder and handed it to Smart Alec.  "Thanks."

Smart Alec laid the stereo on the flat bank and turned the volume to its max, just as Shane tipped off the pipe and rolled down onto the pavement to join the other skaters.  He spotted a funbox nearby with a yellow rail positioned alongside it.  As he continued to push in its direction, he hopped into the air, grinding across it smoothly before skipping off and landing clean at the end of it.  The song, "Leaders", that had been playing for the last few minutes came to a close and was immediately followed by another Damian Marley and Nas song entitled, "Land of Promise."  

He felt himself relax as the sounds filled the air of the park and he bobbed his head to the music before dipping down into bowl and turning in to a 360 spin on the other side, landing back in smoothly.

"Promise land, no fables, This where the truth's told
Use them two holes above your nose to see the proof, yo"

Shane flew out of the bowl and landed back on the pavement beside one of the tag-covered vert walls, which he immediately headed for as his favorite verse of the song blared in the distance.

"If these are the last days 
And hundred foot waves come crashing down
I'll get some hash and pounds,
Pass around some bud and watch the flood."

"Hey Shane!" shouted a voice, walking up from one end of the park, stepping over a pyrmaid as he headed over in Shane's direction.  It was Willis, who smiled brightly as he waved at Shane.  "I heard about what that Prayer stuff did to you.  Wild, huh?"

"Yeah, I'll say," Shane said with a roll of his eyes, skidding the board to a stop in front of him.  "That shit nearly got me in a world of trouble with Cassette.  She caught me in bed with that girl.  I was lucky I was able to talk my way out of it."

Willis chuckled and put his hands in his pocket, Shane hearing the rattle of a bag as he did so.  "Sorry about that, bro.  Guess I should've told you what that stuff does to you before you took it.  I'll let you know next time I give you something to experiment with.  It wasn't good for you anyways."

"You know actually," Shane said, eying Willis' right pocket, which was buldged out by his hand and some other content that had caused the rattling and caught his attention.  "Now that I know what it does and I can use it responsibly, how about I take some more of those off your hands."

"Some more Prayer?  You want to purchase some?"

"Yeah," Shane said, reaching into his own pocket and lifting out a pair of stylish red and black earbuds.  "These are Beats By Dr. Dre headphones.  How many tablets can I get with them?"

"Hmm," Willis pondered, rubbing his chin in thought.  "What's the quality?"

"One of the headphones blew out a few years ago, but the wires have been fixed back into place.  So they're refurbished."

"Right.  I'd say probably a halfbag's worth."

"That works," Shane said, handing the headphones to Willis, who took them and then proceeded to pull out the halfbag he had in his pocket, the source of the rattling Shane had detected.  "Figured that was what I heard in your pocket."

"You actually heard it?" Willis asked with a raised eyebrow as he handed the bag to Shane.  "That sounds like something I'd hear from a starting addict."

Shane chortled, shoving the bag back into his pocket.  "No, I'm just observant like that.  Thanks for hooking me up."

"No problem"-

Willis was interrupted abruptly by a loud siren that sounded twice to draw attention.  Everyone in the park, including Shane and Willis, turned in its direction as they watched a white and crimson vehicle with red and blue lights on top cruise up from the street onto the curb right next to the park.  The skaters traveled to a stop and eyed the vehicle with indifference.  Its doors flew open and two figures stepped out of either side.  They were sporting the same red and white uniforms that Shane had recognized on Roy a day earlier.  These two officers, one middle-aged and one in his late 20's, entered the park and scanned the crowd of gang members with a level of snobbishness that quickly iwarned Shane that his quantity of patience was about to be tested.

"You want to do the honors?" The younger officer said to the older one.

The older officer shrugged.  "Doesn't matter to me.  You can handle it if you want."

"Fine."  The younger officer stepped down the steps that led to the pavement of the skatepark.  His hair was swirled into a clean sophisticated cut and he walked with an air of arrogance that allowed him to repell the scornful eyes falling on him from every direction.  "My name is Officer Best and this is Officer McCall.  We understand there's been some illegal activity taking place around here and we were called in to check it out."

"No you weren't," Shane countered, his voice seeping with contempt.  "You were cruising by and decided to crash this gathering."

"Same difference, kid," the Officer named McCall shrugged, tilting his head aside.  He stepped forward and began to approach Willis, who was still holding on to the pair of headphones he'd just been given.  "What's that in your hand there?"

Willis looked down and realized that he hadn't had time to put the headphones in his pocket before the Stratis Officers had arrived.  He didn't respond.  The Officer beckoned for it with his hand and Willis swallowed hard impatiently, tossing the bundle of headphones into McCall's chest.  McCall grabbed hold of it and gave Willis an offended look but then smirked.  He proceeded to drop the pair on the cement and smashed both of the earphones with the heel of his boot, letting them shatter under his foot.  Willis flinched at the motion and McCall smiled in triumph.

"You!" Officer Best shouted, pointing directly up at Alec, who stood on the top of the half pipe with the boombox resting proudly behind his head.  Alec, who had already been making eye contact with him, did not flinch when he was addressed and continued to stare at the Officer in disgust.  "Are you aware that that device on your shoulder is prohibited under the International Law of Stratis Corp?"

Alec lifted his head and pulled his hand from his pocket, sliding his fingers under his chin quickly and gesturing in a disparaging manner.  The Officer took the offensive act with amusement, turning to his partner with a smirk.  As he turned back to Alec's direction, he strolled closer toward him.  "Hand it over," he said with authority.

Alec grinned deviously and lifted the boombox off his shoulders just as the song came to an end.  He flicked the stereo off and then, without any warning, hurled the system directly at the Officer, who jerked to his side in surprise, the stereo clipping his shoulder on its way to the cement.  It smashed onto the pavement hard and the top handle snapped off with one of the speakers popping out when it made contact.  Officer Best held his shoulder and gritted his teeth, turning back to Alec with chagrin.  He raised his finger and waved it in Alec's direction, shaking it back and forth.

As Shane watched the spectacle unfold, he felt Houston's hat being forcibly removed from his head and turned to see Officer McCall holding it carelessly.

"The hell would anybody where this ridiculous thing?" Officer McCall said dismissively, spinning the hat between his fingers as he examined it.  With a swift move, he tossed the hat into the sky freely and quickdrew his pistol from his belt, firing up at the hat and watching the blast incinerate it, its ashes sprinkling onto the skatepark pavement.  He blew on the barrel, spun the pistol around on his finger, and jammed it back into its holster like a western cowboy.  "I've still got it."

"Nice one, McCall," Best said with a proud smile before gesturing up towards Alec.  "Now could you uh...."

"Oh right," McCall said in recognition, once again drawing the pistol from its holster and aiming at Alec.  He fired and the blast struck Alec right in the thigh, causing him to wail in agony, grabbing hold of it tightly as he collapsed on the top of the half pipe.  Best hopped onto it and pulled a pair of high-tech handcuffs from his belt loop, reaching for Alec's hands and clipping them on his wrists tightly before pulling him to his feet.  With a quick shove, the Officer pushed Alec off of the five foot high half pipe and watched as Alec fell head first onto the hard pavement with a loud thud.  The Marxmin around him gasped in horror and McCall cringed playfully, laughing with enjoyment.  "That's got to hurt."  Willis started to step forward with a blind rage sturring inside him, but Shane pulled him back by the shoulder, bringing him back into reality.

Alec was now unconscious from the fall and Best hopped off of the half pipe beside him, sighing with annoyance.  "McCall, help me get this douchebag into the car."

"Yeah, okay," McCall said, holstering his weapon once again.  "Just let me do this ticket right quick and I'll be right with you."

McCall pulled a transparent device from his pocket, an exact replica of the one Roy had used to give Shane his ticket the previous day.  McCall tapped several keys on the holographic keypad that protruded from the device before it chirped and a purple slip ejected from it.  McCall ripped it from the device and shoved it into Willis' chest aggressively before giving him a challenging sneer and following his partner to Alec's unconscious body.  The two lifted him up with relative ease, holding him by his pits and dragging him past the others, up the stairs of the skatepark.

"You lowlifes have a nice day," Officer Best muttered, saluting in their direction as they reached the car and McCall opened it, sliding Alec into the backseat.  "And stay out of trouble."

McCall slammed the door shut and walked over to the other side of the vehicle, slipping into the driver's seat.  Best started to accompany him in the passenger seat but turned back to the park, remembering something.

"Oh, one more thing."

"Hurry up, will you?" McCall muttered.  "Just got a text on the communicator saying we need to report back to HQ as soon as possible.  Something about Stratis's missing kid."

"Alright, it won't take but a second," Best said quickly, walking back over to the staircase of the skatepark full of the resentment-filled gang members standing before him helplessly.  Best reached for his own pistol and aimed carefully down at the partially broken boombox that lay on the ground just out of reach by the crowd.  He fired twice at the device, watching it pop and explode from the blast.  Knowing it was now beyond repair, he cackled menacingly as the stares of the Marxmin grew increasingly dangerous with every breath he took, as if secretly wishing that somehow the next would be his last.  "That should do it."

Best turned and headed back for their vehicle as it pulled off from the curb and did a U-turn, heading back deeper into the city's Metro District.  As soon as they were out of sight, Willis turned around and struck Shane in his chest lightly with frustration.

"What the hell was that?" he asked, infuriated.  "Why didn't you do anything?"

"Thats what I'm wondering," said a voice behind them, who Shane discovered to be Hope, standing with her hands on her hips and an irritated look on her face.  "What's your problem?  How could you just sit there and let that happen?"

"What was I supposed to do?" Shane shrugged honestly.  "It would have been a lose-lose situation no matter what happened.  If I'd ordered you to gang up on them and kill them, the Strats would've come back with an army and crushed us because we aren't ready.  If I had assaulted him, I would've been arrested with Alec and then you would be without a leader.  There was nothing I could do."

Hope shook her head with dismay.  "You know that second scenario is actually sounding pretty reasonable right about now.  Because anything would've been better than watching all of that happen helplessly.  I am so disappointed in you right now."

"Now hold on a minute, guys," Geneva intervened, stepping between Shane and Hope.  "Give him some credit.  You all were thinking in the context of the now; Beat up those Stratis cops and get revenge.  Shane was thinking bigger.  Who knows what sort of consequences we could have gotten ourselves into if we had done that.  Using Shane as a scapegoat for what happened to Alec is counterproductive.  Don't be so short-sighted, Shane just prevented us from potentially giving the Scarfs a reason to come down on us hard."

Hope, Willis, and the others who stared at the group curiously softened as Geneva came to Shane's defense.  Shane himself, who had been hesitant and having second thoughts about his own decision to remain calm throughout the event, smiled to himself with gratitude toward Geneva for stepping in.  He soon turned to Willis apologetically and reached into his pocket for the Prayer tablets.

"You can have these back"-

"No, no, mate," Willis responded, holding up his hands to stop him.  "You paid for those fair and square.  Just because I was too much of a bloke to hide my share at the right time doesn't mean you should miss out."

"Well I appreciate that, man," Shane thanked him as he pushed the bag of tablets farther down into his pocket.

"I'm sorry, Shane," Hope sighed behind him as he turned around to face her.  "I got caught up in the heat of the moment.  But if something like that ends up happening again, I can't promise you that I won't lash out on those fuckers without your permission."

"Understood.  Trust me, if it does happening again, I'll be in the same boat."

Geneva, who had been standing nearby, soon stepped forward and whispered into Shane's ear.  "If you're going to do anything, you need to do it soon because tolerance is lower than ever now, especially after this.  Time is short."

As Geneva backed up from him, Shane nodded reassuringly before surveying the rest of them.  "We should be heading back."

The Marxmin shrugged with acceptance and somberly packed up their belongings, kicking off on their skateboards, bikes, and roller blades into opposite directions as they left the park vacant.  Shane ambled toward the broken stereo, the blaze of which had died down to a smoldering cluster of smoke twirling up from the burned contraption.

"You can hook us up with another stereo, right Willis?"

"Not of a quality as good as that one was, but I still have a bunch back at my hideout.  No worries."

"Good," Shane replied, leaning down toward it.  "This one is pretty much useless now.  Maybe some of the parts are intact enough for Cassette to scavenge through for her radio."

"I'll take it to her."  Willis said, heading towards the broken stereo and lifting it up, positioning it under his arm.  "Even if it is completely useless, she'll make something of it.  She's resourceful like that."

"Yeah," Shane said, smiling.  "Give her my love when you see her."

"Will do.  Talk to you all later."

Willis turned and headed out of the skatepark, leaving Shane, Geneva, Hope, and several other Marxmin as the only ones left occupying the area.  Shane motioned for them all to follow as he led them across the opposite side of the park, where the black van they used for frequent transportation, the same one used during the siege on the Mercury Compound, was left parked.  With Abel practicing with the Heretics back at the Compound, Shane would serve as the driver for their trip back as he had done for them on their way to the park.  He hopped in the front seat and unlocked the doors for everyone to enter.  When they were settled in, he tossed his skateboard in the back, stuck his key into the ignition, and pulled the vehicle away from the sidewalk, traveling deeper into the haggard but peaceful neighborhood.

In the back of his mind, Shane slowly tried to arrange together the pieces of a scheme that would turn the tide of the status quo established by the ever-present Stratis Corp.  However, this was a challenge that could not be overcome easily, not when the plan was being forced together, rather than carefully constructed with the help of the passion and determination he would use to fuel it.  It seemed like now, he was formulating this scheme simply because he had to; because the hour of reckoning that would determine the fate of the Strays and Stratis Corp was growing closer.  But with this pressure looming over him, he was finding it difficult to concentrate and come up with anything good, not when the stress of the situation was overweighing the determination required to come up with a natural plan of attack.

In the midst of his thought, he suddenly shifted back into reality at the sight of the image he spotted down the street.  Shane's eyes zeroed in to see a small figure struggling from the grip of a pale-skinned bald man, that shoved him aggressively into the backseat of a banged-up rusted car.  Just as the man stepped into the vehicle, accompanied by four other identical men, one that was doubled over in pain, Shane pointed the group out.

"Hey, aren't those the junkies that work for Mr. Panache?" Shane asked Geneva, who sat in the passenger seat beside him.

She had been lounging with her head on her fist but her attention perked at the mention of the individuals.  She looked up out of the window and could see the swastika tattooed on the back of the last one's head just as he slipped into the car.

"Sure is," she answered with realization.  "Wonder what they're up to."

"I think I know."  The rusted old car revved up and sped off from the sidewalk, tires screeching and leaving black skid marks on the pavement.  Shane pushed his foot on the gas and sped the van up as he drove, tailing after the car.

"What are you doing?" Geneva asked anxiously.

"Going after them," he answered, keeping his eyes glued to the back of the car with determination.

"What?!  Why?!"

"I saw them throw a boy in the backseat.  You know what they're taking him for."

"Yeah but you've got a van full of people, are you sure thats a good idea?"

Shane didn't answer but instead increased his pressure on the gas pedal, speeding the van ever closer to the vehicle.  Hope's attention perked at the conversation and the increase of speed while the others reached for their seatbelts and clicked themselves in tightly.  The van eventually reached the back of the car and collided with its bumper, causing it to snap off and roll recklessly under the van's wheels as it continued onward.  Shane could see the skinheads turn around and spot the van behind him.

"Who the hell is that?" their leader said from the passenger seat, looking back behind them.

"I can't tell," the driver said, trying to get a glimpse behind and keep his eyes on the road at the same time.  "Some dumb nigger thinking he can muscle up on us.  Bruce, give him something to cry about."

"On it," One of the skinheads in the back muttered, pushing Vic, who had been sitting in the center with his arms tied together, tears pouring down his face, out of the way of the compartment between the two backseats.  Bruce pulled back part of the cushion and reached into the trunk, grabbing hold of a metal device on the other side before pulling it out to reveal a rather large submachine gun, its clip already inserted.  He flashed a twisted smile at his ally, who sat beside him, holding tightly to Vic.  The armed skinhead turned to the open window, which had been busted out long ago, and leaned out of the side with his gun in hand.  Unfortunately for him, Shane had been ready for him and proceeded to floor the gas pedal, speeding the van alongside the car.  Before a single shot could be fired, the van plowed past the car, colliding into Bruce hard.  His torso snapped in half from the waist up, his body sliding out of the car and onto the pavement as the wheels of the van trampled right over him.

"Fuck!" the leader shouted loudly with frustration.  "That machine gun was in excellent condition.  Damn it all."

Shane jerked the wheel and smashed into the old car, nearly knocking it into a fire hydrant that had just been narrowly missed.  Up ahead, the road led upward to a freeway bridge, which traveled over one of the lakes that separated the Strays from the outskirts of the suburban district.  This freeway was vacant since the residents from the suburban district had never felt the need, nor were they allowed, to take a sunday drive in the gang-infested neighborhood behind their own.  As the two vehicles took the path onto the freeway, they both struggled to run the other off the road but neither to any avail.

"Hold the wheel," Shane instructed Geneva, who she reached for it and held tightly to keep the vehicle steady.  Shane stood up from the driver's seat and slithered to the back where Hope and the others sat.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Hope asked frantically.

"I'm not thinking, so I wouldn't know," Shane replied back, sliding back the side door to the van.  As soon as he could see the vehicle beside him nearly three feet away, the driver of the old car began to cock his sidearm, a sawn-off shotgun, and aimed it directly at Shane.  With a quick reaction, Shane closed the van door slightly, knowing that it was outfitted by his men to be bulletproof, and felt it tremble dangerously as the gunshot rang out and struck the door.  Shane took a deep breath and slid the door back, propelling himself from the van as hard as he could.  In the heat of the moment, Shane was more than aware that if he had even spent a second contemplating what a horrible idea this was, he would have talked himself out of it, and thats why he didn't give it any thought whatsoever.

Fortunately, he was able to scale the length between the car and the van, landing on top of the car's roof with a thud as he held on by the tops of the windows.  The wind that blew across his face forced him to squint his eyes and hold on for dear life as the door to the van closed shut.  He could see Geneva hopping into the driver's seat and darting her eyes between him and the road hectically.  Shane heard a cock of a weapon and his reflexes kicked in, forcing him to let go of one side and slide to the other end of the roof, just as the sawn-off blasted several holes into its center, where he had just been.  It was too close for comfort.

While hanging onto the side, Shane adjusted and positioned himself right above the right backseat window, which was where one of the skinheads sat with Vic in his clutches.  The driver opened the chamber of his sawn-off and moved it toward his leader.

"Need to reload, boss," he said, keeping his eyes on the road as his leader sighed with annoyance and reached into the glove compartment for more shotgun shells.  He opened them up and stuck two of the shells into both chambers, then handed it back to his subordinate.  The driver flipped the gun's barrels back into place just as Shane had reached into the window and grabbed hold of the backseat skinhead's face, punching blindly and wildly.  The skinhead fought back but could not get a good grip on his attacker's quick hands.  He was forced to push Vic away from him, who scampered back quickly to the opposite side of the backseat.  The driver turned in surprise at the action and pointed his weapon to the back, aiming up for Shane's arms.  Mistakenly, he pulled the trigger just as Shane withdrew his hands back up to the roof, spraying a barage of bullets into the skinhead's face.  His head drew back and the entire structure of his face shattered, leaving the backseat of the car covered in blood as bone fragments and chunks of his eyeballs scattered across the back window and his body lay inanimate in the seat.  Vic lay on the other side with traumatizing bewilderment, parts of his shirt sprinkled with the blood spots of the fallen skinhead.

"What the fuck, Reggie?!" the leader screamed in hysteria, his eyes wide with terror.  "What the fuck!?"

"Boss, I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry," the driver pleaded.

"Keep your eyes on the road!"  The leader pointed ahead just as one of the abandoned traffic barrels that had been left by the side of the road popped into view in front of the car.  The driver jerked the wheel and clipped the side of it, causing the half-century-year-old water left inside to spill out onto the side of the car and into his face, briefly incapacitating him.

Shane looked up and saw that the vehicle he was on was taking a subroute that diverged from the black van being driven by Geneva.  He could see the van speeding away in the opposite direction and silently cursed to himself as he was now alone on top of a busted up car, which belonged to a pair of junkies trying to kidnap a boy he didn't even know.  He looked up ahead and could see the outskirts of the suburban district, which consisted of a lazily neglected section of a devastated neighborhood, the houses of which had crumbled and the grass that had once been lucious and vibrantly growing alongside them dead and rotting beneath the large piles of debris scattered across the landscape.  Originally, the entire demolished section was meant to be the last neighborhood, with the exception of the Strays itself, to be turned into a suburban housing development and complete the chain of Stratis influence.  Now it was completely abandoned; there wasn't a standing house within a mile of view that could be seen.  Respectable neighborhoods that were actually habitable wouldn't surface until about five miles down the road, mainly because the Strats wanted to keep as much distance between their community and the Strays as possible.

Shane crawled to the driver's side of the car and could see him holding up his weapon with his left hand, just barely in view.  Shane reached in and snatched the sawn-off out of his grip, readying it in his own.

"Hey, what the-" Shane struck Reggie in his temple as hard as he could with the butt of the sawn-off, causing him to slump to his side, unconscious.  In desperation, the leader grabbed hold of the wheel and directed the vehicle onto the streets of the debris-covered suburban neighborhood.  In a swift move, Shane slid across the roof on his stomach to the left backseat window, reaching for the door's handle and unlocking it from the inside.  Vic slid back in surprise as the door swung open and Shane appeared in its doorway, his abdomen hanging off of the roof as he stared into the car completely upside down.  He used the door's open window for balance with the sawn-off still in his grip between his fingers and the door.  Shane struggled but was able to pull his other hand off from the roof and reached out with his hand.

"Come on, kid!" he shouted over the rush of air passing over his ears and the creaking of the fragile car falling apart as it tore down the street.  Vic hesitantly crept along the cushion of the backseat and started in Shane's direction, but felt a tug at his shirt as the skinhead leader turned from the passenger seat and grabbed hold of the boy, his other hand still on the wheel and his eyes darting back and forth from the road.  Shane lifted his free hand back up to the roof and reached into his pocket, lifting his new switchblade from it, flipping it through his fingers, and positioning it in a throwing motion.  With a well-measured toss, Shane hurled the blade and struck the skinhead leader in the shoulder, causing him to cry out and release his grip on Vic.  Vic hopped forward as Shane extended his arm once again and grabbed hold of it tightly.

In response, Shane pushed his armed hand up from the door window, the barrel of the shotgun still in his grip.  With the momentum of the push keeping him suspended in mid air for a brief second, Shane positioned the handle between his fingers and aimed carefully, firing the last shell directly at the left front wheel, as he didn't have enough time to aim it back inside the car at the skinhead leader without slipping off.  The rubber on the wheel blew off instantly.  Without the support of the window holding him up, Shane began to slide off of the roof as planned.  Luckily, the car had been trailing over the side of the street and just as Shane began to fall, he tucked into a ball and yanked the boy into his arms, allowing the two to tumble onto the brown grass of one of the abandoned yards.  They finally barreled to a stop and Shane let go of the boy, keeping his eyes on the incapacitated vehicle that was wobbling uncontrollably down the street, its front wheel's rim sending sparks flying up from the asphalt.

The car continued onward until it finally collided with the curb that erupted from the sidewalk, popping the entire half of the vehicle into the air and sending it tumbling over the street recklessly, its parts flying off with ease as it crumbled with each flip.  Finally it rolled to a stop, smoke rising from the wreckage as it landed haphazardly back onto its wheels.  Shane stood up finally and watched the vehicle in silence, just as Vic proceeded to climb to his feet beside him.

"That was a close one," he said with relief, wiping the dead grass off his shirt before looking up to get a good glimpse at Shane for the first time.  Shane was sweating heavily through his tight red t-shirt but was otherwise envigorated and visibly refreshed by the sudden burst of action.

Shane turned to the boy and smiled.  "You're telling me."  He looked back to the destroyed car and realized that they needed to be moving.  "We should probably go, just in case that tumble didn't get rid of them."

"Right."  Vic followed closely behind Shane as he made his way across the field of dead grass and rotten house wood that lay scattered across the countryside.  Ahead of them, they could see past the large terrain that spanned several football fields and led to the emerging cityscape of the Metro District, which lay before them in all its gleaming sun-beamed but whimsically dark brilliance.  It was the closest Shane had been to the city in over ten years and it looked no different from when he'd seen it previously.

"What's your name?" Vic asked curiously, keeping his eyes ahead of him as he watched where he stepped.

"Shane," he answered, without looking back.  "You?"


"What part of the Strays are you from?"

"Um."  Vic contemplated before answering.  "I'm a wanderer.  I tend to travel from place to place around the area."

"Really?" Shane asked with genuine surprise.  "How'd you end up evading Mr. Panache this long?  He'd scoop one of you kids up easily if he saw you."

"Just lucky I guess," Vic shrugged, continuing onward beside Shane.  "I don't even know who Mr. Panache is."

Shane's expression grew dark.  "No one does.  I mean, I actually do, but I'm one of few.  All you really need to know is that he's a dirty, flamboyant, psychopathic, and murderous pedophile and necrophile who runs the largest portion of the Strays not outfitted by the Marxmin, which makes him powerful enough to get whatever he wants.  Which would include you.  Most times, he's content with any young Marxmin or other kid he finds strolling the streets that he can beat the life out of; he doesn't mind sticking his shaft into a dead one, but occasionally he'll keep one alive before doing away with them once he's finished.  My brother came across him a few years back and nearly beat the life out of him.  I honestly thought he was dead until a few months ago, when I found out he was still up to no good.  Now he pays junkies with drugs to get them to do his bidding.  Thats all his outfit is made up of: a bunch of disloyal addicts who don't know shit from sunshine.  Its why he'll never have what the Marxmin have."

Vic looked off into the distance with a curious gaze, itching for information.  "Um, Shane.  What exactly are these....Marxmin?"

Shane stopped his stride and turned to Vic in confusion.  "You....You don't know about the Marxmin?"

Vic shook his head awkwardly.  Shane looked off for a moment and then turned back to him.

"You're not really from the Strays, are you?"  Vic hesitated but proceeded to shake his head and Shane raised his eyebrows with surprise.  "Wow.  That's unexpected.  I would imagine you lied for a reason, so you don't have to give me a back story.  If you want though, I can fill you in on how everything works around here."

"I'd very much appreciate that," Vic said with a touch of excitement.  This was exactly what he came to the Strays for: To be informed of a world outside of his own and to take from it a new experience.

Shane chuckled at his certain burst of enthusiasm.  "All right, let's keep walking.  I'll fill you in.  I'll just have to omit some things for personal reasons.  I hope you understand."

Vic picked up his step and followed alongside Shane, who took a deep breath and began to explain his way of life to this complete stranger.  "Well, the Strays is run by three things: Music, Street Gangs, and The Blue Market.  About ten or so years ago, the Strays was divided into color lines; turfs determined by the street gang populace that regulated the area.  Each gang was inspired and driven by the passion they felt for a certain style of music; you know, with the records and stuff left behind from the Solid Days."

"Solid Days?"

"Yeah, the days before the big war that caused everything to start over."

"Big war?"

Shane sighed.  "You don't know about the war?  And how afterward, Stratis emerged and started calling the shots?"

"I thought Stratis was always around."

"No, they actually weren't.  There was a war that tore the world apart many years ago and forced everyone to rebuild, but Stratis tried to establish order by stripping us of our culture.  They enforced their rules everywhere in the world except for in the Strays, thanks to this guy named Shawn Marx."

"What did he do?"

"He unifed the gangs; basically convinced them that their choice to segregate the area based on musical taste was heavily flawed.  It ended up making them to realize that all music is the same, yet different, just like every human being.  And with that realization, they followed Shawn, who sought to bring everyone together under the mutual appreciation for music and the culture sprouted from its influence.  Then everybody pretty much looked past their differences and worked together to stop the Strats from muscling into the Strays.  That was about ten years ago.  Shawn Marx died in the battle that resulted from the revolution, so the gang he formed named themselves after him, the Marxmin."

Vic kept quiet, listening to what he was being told.  He couldn't believe he was finally being informed first hand on the ways of the Strays.  He didn't know much about the place or the syndicate that had been brewing in the Strays, but he'd originally come to the conclusion that it couldn't be good.  His father repeatedly spoke of its existence and how they were the irremovable thorn in his side, leading Vic to be raised believing that these individuals known as "Marxmin" were an army of anarchistic, heartless murderers.  But the way Shane spoke about them told a different story.  He omitted any sort of incriminating background behind their existence, a trait that would only be expected if Shane were aware of Vic's lineage.  But he wasn't.  That meant that everything he spoke about the Marxmin's ways were genuine.  He had no reason to lie.

"So yeah, the Marxmin are the largest gang and own the largest turf in the Strays, but there are still other gangs out there.  In the order from largest to smallest, there's the Marxmin, then there's Mr. Panache's Militia.  He owns the western portion of the Strays.  Then there WAS the Mercuries, but the Marxmin actually wiped them off the map recently.  Then there's the Four Paws Gang, the Lords of Nike, the Bellesworth Brutes, the Roaming Saints, the Supernovas, and a few other smaller outfits scattered across the South Strays, out near the Ruins behind the city.  None of them are musically influenced like the Marxmin, since the Marxmin are comprised of all of the gangs that actually were.  Any gang that chose not to join us obviously wasn't, seeing as that was what drew everyone together in the first place.

"Pretty much everybody thrives through this underground economic system thats been running throughout the Strays called the Blue Market.  Its the foundation for everything we hold dear; without it, the Strays, the Marxmin, our culture, and our way of life would fall apart.  Its basically the Supply and Demand of culturally-related material through what we call Blue Market Merchants.  They sell things that are otherwise hard to come by, especially with Stratis on our backs: Stuff like MP3 Players, Flashdrives, CD's and Stereos, Headphones, Amps, Instruments, Microphones, and most importantly, a large variety of clothing.  That usually depends on the Merchant though.  I tend to get most of my clothing from a friend of mine who's a Blue Market Dealer.  His name is Willis.  He also supplies me with....other stuff, but mainly things appropriate to keep the drive of the community alive."

"Cool," Vic said, turning his head with a bit of confusion, as he truthfully didn't know what any of the products that Shane mentioned were, but neglected to bring it up as it would only raise more questions about where he came from.  He decided to move on.  "So how do you buy these things?  Where do you get the money?  I mean I've heard that you can't accumulate Stratis bills without getting a Stratis-approved job?"

Shane eyed the boy curiously and smiled.  "You're a pretty smart kid, you know that?"  Vic smiled back and shrugged gratefully.  "Well we don't actually pay.  The Blue Market operates purely on trade agreement, which is determined by quality, quantity, and the content in question."

"Couldn't that get kind of messy from time to time?"

"Yeah, and it does.  It really depends on who you're working with.  I mean, if I were the one behind it all, I wouldn't have set it up the same way, but the Blue Market has been around since before I could comprehend it, so I pretty much just went with it all.  I know a lot of Market Dealers and I know a lot about how it works, mainly because my brother was a Blue Market Dealer before the Marxmin was formed."

"Interesting," Vic said with wonder.  "So what's your role in all of this?"

"Well now, see kid, you're delving into shallow water with that one," Shane said, smiling jovially.  "If you're going to ask me something personal like that, I need to know more about you first."

"Oh okay," Vic said with a bit of disappointment, knowing that disclosing his true identity would be prejudicial to someone like Shane.  But if he chose not to reveal himself, Shane might suspect that something sinister may be in play here.  "Fair enough.  Um...."

Out of the corner of his eye, something slipped into view that immediately caught his attention and somehow saved him the trouble of revealing himself to Shane.  He turned to see one lone house standing at the end of the block by itself.  Amongst the desolate field of trash, rubble, and wood, a single two story abode stood majestically, glistening off of the shining sun.  It seemed to be recently built and painted, as it stood strong over the wreckage that surrounded it.  Even the grass circling the house was vibrant and a healthy shade of green.  Vic tapped Shane on his arm and pointed in the direction of the house, looking up at him to catch his reaction.  Shane turned to it with a confused look, surveying his surroundings for any signs of other houses like this one that were still standing in the area, but there were none.  This one house, in the center of a field of destroyed houses, stood in alone in one spot without so much as a scratch on its outer structure.

Shane motioned for Vic to follow him and the two approached the house, their gaze unavertable from the mezmerizing beauty and the sheer unorthodoxed nature of its existence.  As they stepped onto the front lawn, they were instantly hit with a shower of water, which immediately caught them off-guard.  A pair of sprinklers had been stationed in the front and almost seemed to be motion detected, as they had been activated as soon as the two stepped foot on the grass.  In surprise, they sprinted up to the front porch of the house, wiping themselves off and trying to get dry again.  Shane surveyed the porch, which was looked as if it had just been swept and left spotless.  He looked at Vic, who shrugged without a clue as to why this house was here and who was tending to it.

Shane turned around and searched for a ringer that would allow him to notify whoever was occupying the house that they had a visitor; however, he saw no sign of one.  He surveyed the beautifully architected screen door, which was outfitted with a curled metal design, covered in silk.  The door behind it was wide open and Shane could see inside the house.  He reached for the handle and opened it, walking inside with Vic behind him.

"Hello?" Shane called out just as he was hit with the fragrance of flower pedals mixed with some type of perfume.  "Is anyone here?"

The house was as beautifully put together as the exterior with silk mohogany floors and walls that ran into a hallway in front of him and along the kitchen beside them.  Adjacent to the hallway, an oakwood bookcase stood in front of them with a large hand-knitted rug lying in the center of the living room.  There was a rocking chair that lay beside a flight of stairs, which was on the opposite side of the bookcase and turned up to the second floor of the house out of sight.  Shane stepped forward and peeked into the kitchen to find that it was small and vacant, with the exception of a large stainless steel refrigerator, a single dining table and the usual cabinets and sink that occupied an average kitchen.

All of a sudden, sound filled the room, causing the two to jump as Shane went on the offense, ready for anything.  He immediately calmed down when he realized what had caused the sound: some kind of device had been lying on the middle shelf of the bookcase dormantly, spilling noise from its speakers.  Shane examined it closely and could hear the collective organized sound of stomping and clapping.  Boom-Boom-Clap.  Boom-Boom-Clap.  If he hadn't known any better, he would have imagined that the selection was actually being formed into a song, but no song he'd heard before.  This suspicion was confirmed when he heard a man's voice pierce sharply from what looked to be an old radio and sung the lyrics clearly.

"Buddy, you're a boy, Making big noise,
Playing in the street, Gonna be a big man some day
You've got mud on your face, You big disgrace
Kickin' your can all over the place, singin'

We Will, We Will Rock You"

As the chorus emerged from the radio, Shane was slightly taken aback, as he had not anticipated it.  He smirked to himself as he bent down towards the radio curiously, turning his ear to the speakers to hear the lyrics better.

"Buddy, you're a young man, Hard man
Shoutin' in the street, Gonna take on the world some day
You've got blood on your face, You big disgrace
Wavin' your banner all over the place,'

We Will, We Will Rock You"

Shane turned back to Vic curiously, who was looking at him with confusion.  "I don't suppose you've heard this song before, have you?"

"Never," he said, shaking his head.

Shane turned back to the radio and nodded his head to the beat of the music, visibly enjoying it.

"Buddy, you're an old man, Poor man,
Pleadin' with your eyes, Gonna make you some peace some day
You've got mud on your face, You big disgrace
Somebody better put you back into your place.

We Will, We Will Rock You"

Shane continued to listen intently, all the way to the guitar solo outro that signified that the song was nearly over.  Immediately mesmerized by its sound, he put his hand over his mouth in surprise by how easily he found himself falling in love with the song that was blaring into his ears.  He looked back at Vic, who was staring off into space as he nodded his head, appreciating its value as well.  When the solo was finished, the song was replaced by the voice of another man, who's tone was artificially masked, as if to conceal his identity.

"That was 'We Will Rock You' by the legendary rock band, Queen, another obscure hit for those of you jamming out in those bunks and shelters you've set up for yourselves to shield you from all this Stratis rain.  Speaking of Stratis Corp, if you're listening to this right now, I've got three words for every single one of you beautiful intelligent people up on that throne in the sky: Go fuck yourselves.  Thats right, yo heard it here first.  We're that station that supplies you with what you want and need: The audible remnants of generations long past to sooth you during these hard times.  You best believe it.  This is DJ Pathos here at Armor Clad Radio once again informing you to live by words you cannot see: Peace, Love, and Anarchy.  We'll be back after this break."

The radio suddenly switched to a selection of Opera music.  Shane couldn't believe what he had heard.  The voice on the other side was a DJ.  A Radio DJ.  In a world where radio frequency usage was banned and any other subsequent trials to replicate it was made impossible to pursue; Shane knew this from experience as his girlfriend, Cassette, made it her life's work to pursue such a feat.  But right before him, a radio with no antenna was currently playing music that he had just believed to be from a CD or cassette tape, but turned out to be directly from a radio station somewhere in the city.

"Don't you fucking move!" shouted a voice from the stairway beside them, causing Shane to lift his hands as quickly as possible after the sound of a gun cocking filled the air of the living room.  He turned his head up toward the top of the stairs in surprise to see a rather elderly white woman stepping down onto the living room floor, her barrel still fixed onto Shane's back.  She looked to be approximately eighty years old, give or take a few years; her grey hair was tied back into a tight bun and she wore a medium sized velvet dress that trailed along her ankles.  She held tightly to a double-barrel shotgun, gripping the handle firmly with her finger already wrapped across the trigger.  "Both of you turn around.  Slowly."

Shane twisted gradually in her direction while Vic, who had also been holding up his hands cautiously, did the same.  As they came into view, the woman squinted her eyes with disbelief and then burst into laughter.  Shane and Vic exchanged nervous looks as the woman held her mouth with shock, staring at the two of them in amazement.

"So," she said, grabbing hold of her weapon but lowering it as she realized who they were.  "So, Shane Marx, leader of the Marxmin and Victor Stratis Jr, son of the Stratis Tycoon.  Both together by themselves in my house.  Unbelievable."

"What?!"  They called out in unison.  Realization hit the two of them simultaneously as they whipped toward each other, now aware but nonetheless confused by the revelation just revealed about the two of them.

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