The alley was long, narrow and nearly featureless. To my left, the side of the casino was a solid slab of concrete, forty feet high and five hundred feet long. To my right, the side of the hotel was also a concrete slab, twenty feet high, with four gleaming, white towers floating in a semicircle, with rows of dark windows, rising about sixty stories into the purple sky. Bright spotlights illuminated the towers from below; a huge holographic sign bridged the distance between two of the towers, its letters in blue and red neon, spelling out, "Mandalay Regency."
'Mandalay,' I thought. 'That's a great name for a planet. I should think up a good name for our star system; so far it's only designation is SG587249j.' But then I remembered that I would probably never see it; all our ownership papers were gone, all claim I had to it was gone...
Things went from glitzy to scummy real fast as we left the Strip. Behind the Mandalay Regency and the Golden River was another narrow street, maybe thirty feet wide, its grass patchy and dry, the ground was hard packed. There was little traffic here, and what there was, sped by as if chased by the devil himself. Across the dimly lit street was a long row of "clap-trap" buildings, dingy little shops with apartments above then. "Clap-traps" - that's what everybody called them - they were used for initial colonization: simple, prefab structures that took up little space on the transports and were quick and easy to erect. These were streaked and pitted, blotched with multi-colored graffiti, and the victims of many other unnamed stains. From the research I'd done, clap-traps were only supposed to last twenty or thirty years at most, but these had obviously been up much longer than that.
Behind the back-to-back clap traps, ran another alley and, across that, stood an enormous barn with the number ninety-one, in chipped and worn white, on the corner. It was also made of the same clap-trap materials, with a few panels either dented or pulled lose from the frame, and was also the victim of many years of weather and other stains. The big doors on the end were closed; Rick lead me to a smaller door that creaked when he opened it; soft, green neon spilled into the alley.
Before I took two steps into shades of color, Rick turned to me and pushed my shoulders to the wall; he held me snugly, with his arm across my chest, just below my throat. "OK," he said. "Now, what's your name?"
"Logan," I said.
"How old are you?"
"Do you have any money?"
"Did you bring me here to rob me?"
"We have a few rules around here," Rick said. "First is, we never steal from each other; if you want something, or need something, just ask; we don't have much around here, and what we do have, we share, except for your money - that's yours; keep it safe."
"OK," I said. "It's only sixty-four credits."
"That's a lot for some of these kids, so watch it," Rick said.
"Second: we don't fight with each other; if you have a problem with somebody, you talk it out.
"Third: never tell anybody where you live and never bring anybody here without checking with me first. It's safer to keep this place as secret as possible."
"It's a pretty big place to be kept secret!" I said, looking around at the cavernous barn; I guessed it to be at least two hundred-fifty feet long and a hundred wide. I could see a long, narrow loft to my left, beneath which were many curtained areas where, I assumed, many kids lived.
"Hiding in plain sight," Rick said. "Fourth: we're like a family here; we live together, work together, share food, clothing, whatever. Most of the boys here work on the Strip, renting themselves out for money to live on and everybody pays fifteen credits a week to stay here. You're welcome to stay as long as you like, you can come and go as you like, but you'll have to pay rent, too; I don't care where you get it."
"How many people live here?" I asked.
"Right now," Rick thought for a moment, "sixteen boys - counting you - and two girls."
I heard a sound that drew my eyes to a young boy coming down the steps from the second-level loft; he was about twelve and completely, unabashedly naked. He walked toward us, slinking along with the grace and agility of a cat; his caramel-colored skin subtly changing hues as he passed under different colored neon and florescent lights. His bright, blond hair stood up like a field of tiny spikes on his head and gleamed softly, also changing colors with the lights. The pale inverse-shadow of a speedo or bikini spanned his hips, giving creamy contrast to his half-grown, neatly-circumcised dick and small, dangling balls.
As the boy came closer, I could see his entire body, from his cherub face to the tops of his feet, was covered by a fine pelt of tiny, silvery hairs that glittered in the soft light and accented his every curve and contour. Not only was his hair bright blond, but his eyebrows were nearly white, and beneath them, I could see his eyes, like none I'd ever seen before, soft pools of light, ghostly blue that immediately pierced my heart and ensnared my soul. He walked, bare feet whispering, across the wide, concrete floor and came to stand beside Rick. He studied me with an angelic, freckled face and I saw a slight smile curl the corners of his full lips.
"This is Jeffy," Rick said, seeing my focus drawing intently upon the boy; he ruffled the boy's hair.
Jeffy smiled at Rick and ducked away slightly.
"Jeffy, this is Logan," Rick said. "I have to go out and do a couple things, so why don't you show the new boy around?"
"OK," Jeffy said. "Are you going to get food?"
"Yeah," Rick said. "I'll bring back something." He pulled me away from the door and started to leave, but then stopped for a moment. "Oh, there's one more rule," he said. "If you piss me off, for any reason, you're out on your ass!"
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