(an Underground story)
by Andrew Vachss
It all started when one of them spilled wine on Rajah. We were all together when it happened—Game Boys, out on the stalk. We all had our ID jackets, blue and white Celex. Every jacket cost more than two months' tokens, but we wear only the very finest. You can't be a Game Boy unless you can style. Rajah is the leader. He was then, anyway.
We were coming from the Arcade, where we play. Game Boys play video games. Every crew plays something. You are what you do. The Scooter Boys all ride. The Magic Girls do potions. I even heard about a crew out in Brooklyn, the Cricket Boys. West Indians, I think they are.
Anyway, this bum was staggering down the platform. We were waiting on the Uptown Conveyor—we saw him coming. Just a bum. In a long, floppy coat. Bums have no style. We spread out in a fan, the way we do with outsiders. The bum had to walk real close to the tracks to get past us. Rajah was the closest. The bum turned kind of sideways to get past. His hands were shaking. He had a bottle in a paper bag. Some of the wine bubbled out. Red wine. It splattered on Rajah's jacket, right on the white sleeve with the four Tron–marks branded in blue.
Everybody went quiet then. Nobody can touch our jackets. Rajah just looked at the bum with his mouth open. Like it couldn't be happening.
I took out my blaster. It's really just a pistol, a little .25 caliber automatic. Chrome, with a pearl handle. From the old days. We all have them. You have to have one to be a Game Boy. We call them blasters, like in the video games.
I never shot it before. The Conveyor was coming. I pointed it at the bum and pulled the trigger. It didn't make much noise, like a little pop, but the bum grabbed his chest like he'd been stabbed. I kept pulling the trigger, thinking "Zap!" in my head, like I was wasting a whole army of Trons. I felt the rush you get from wasting, running right through me. A perfect score means a free game.
The bum fell down. Rajah kicked him until he went over the side, onto the tracks.
We walked away, smooth. Game Boys don't run.
The next day, it was on the Info–Board in every station. The bum who got done. The sensors light up in the Sanitation Tunnel, and the Squad goes out, finds the dead ones. They had the bum's number on the Info-Board. A low number—he must have been a real old one.
Merlin gave me the idea for the mark. Like we do for Trons. Rajah had four. On his sleeve, where you wear them. You get a Tron–mark for a perfect game. Rajah had four—it was the most of any of us, so he was the leader. Anyway, Merlin said I should have a mark ... for blasting the bum.
Rajah said that was bogus. Only Trons counted. Merlin said a bum was like a Tron, only harder, maybe. Some of the Game Boys went with Rajah, some went with me. It was a true dispute.
We went to the Arcade to settle it. Game Boys don't fight each other, it's the rules. None of the crews fight each other. I heard they used to, years ago, before the Terror. Before everybody lived underground.
The thing about bums, they don't have crews. If they catch you fighting now, they put you on the Hydro–Farm for a year. A whole year, and you don't get any tokens for it.
If you kill someone in a crew, they put you Outside. The crews never fight each other anymore.
In the Arcade, Rajah always wins. He's sharper than me. Faster, with better eyes. But that night I was better. I beat him right at the end, when I fired a laser–combo into the Tron breeding center.
So I got to wear the mark.
For a couple of weeks, I was the only one.
Then Turbo came to the Arcade and said he got one too. A bum. Turbo said he shot him in the back near a Feeding Station.
It was on the Info–Board, but the Dead Score never says how they die—they just put the number up. So we didn't know, not for sure. Some of the Game Boys didn't believe him, but Turbo wanted a mark anyway.
He had to play me for the mark, and I beat him, so he didn't get one.
Merlin said we had to have new Rules. My mark was okay, because all the Game Boys saw me earn it. We have to have Rules, like the game, so everyone has the same chance.
When we went out on the stalk, everybody knew what Turbo would do. He blasted a bum right in front of us. He got his mark.
After a while, Rajah got one too. Then he got another one. He was the leader again.
The next time we were in a fan and we saw a bum, four Game Boys blasted him at the same time.
Merlin said we had to have new Rules again.
The bums started to hide, deeper in the tunnels.
We got off the Conveyor and walked right into a fan of Music Boys. They all had their boom boxes. The leader, Mohawk, he had his on his shoulder. He had three yellow Xs on it. Rajah asked him what they meant. He pointed to Rajah's sleeve. Same thing, he said.
That's how we knew. Everybody was doing it.
In the Sex Tunnel, we saw the leader of the Dancing Girls, Charm. She had four red slashes on the thigh of her shiny black Dorban pants. It looked like lipstick, but we knew by then.
The Dancing Girls all carry razors. The one I got that night told me they don't have to blast bums in front of the others. They use their razors, take a piece of the bum back to show the score.
I told Merlin, and we changed the Rules again.
We didn't video so much after a while. In the Sex Tunnels, it wasn't so much how you styled anymore—it was your marks. The crews split up. People worked alone. It was easier that way ... the bums would run if they saw a crew coming.
I was the leader. Not just the Game Boys' leader, everyone. I had the most marks.
They all hunted bums. The Deaf Boys, the Muscle Boys, even the Love Boys ... the ones who sell in the Sex Tunnels.
Everyone wanted to know my secret. I didn't tell them. But what I did, I just went deeper into the tunnels. At first, the Medical Tunnel was the best. All the bums have to go there, sooner or later. I used to take fingers, they were the easiest. But Merlin said it was too easy ... you could take more than one finger from a bum, and we wouldn't be able to tell ... it wasn't easy to keep count, like with the Arcade.
Ears were the easiest.
Sometimes we hunted in packs. "There's one of them," the scout would whisper, and we'd get close and do him. But when we started to have arguments over the ears, everyone decided to work alone.
Like the bums.
Soon the bums would run if they saw a crew jacket. That made some of the Game Boys feel good, but I saw they were dumb.
The bums couldn't go into the Safety Tunnels where most of the old ones stay. You have to have tokens to stay there. Bums don't have tokens—they can't get them. They can't even sell their blood.
I went deeper into the open tunnels. And I left my jacket at home.
After a while, I could tell when a bum was close, even without looking.
Sometimes I went in so deep, I didn't come out for a week.
But I always had the ears, I was always the leader. The Book Boys kept score. They write on the walls. Every day, something new. With spray cans, they tell the story. That's how we would know if someone got put Outside—it would be on the walls.
When I went deep, I looked like a bum now. Smelled like one. I always carried a paper bag with a bottle of wine in it. And my blaster. And a knife, for taking trophies.
One time, I heard footsteps. People coming. The Cricket Boys, running toward me, holding their bats high over their heads. If I had my jacket, they wouldn't bother me. I could have told them the truth—they wouldn't hurt a Game Boy. But I didn't want them to know my secret, so I ran.
I ran hard, them chasing me, screaming. I heard a whisper–hiss: "In here!" I ducked into a side tunnel. A bum was hiding there. He pushed me down, under a pile of garbage. The Cricket Boys ran on by.
"They're everywhere now," the bum said. "They're trying to kill us all." He looked like a bum all right, but he didn't have any wine. I offered him some of mine.
"Thanks," I told him.
He took a drink. "We have to stick together," he said.
I took his ears.
I pretty much live in the tunnels now. But when I come back, I am the leader. It's on the walls. In the Sex Tunnels, I have my pick. They all know me.
Everybody hunts now. I get spotted a lot by different crews, but they can never catch me. I know the deep tunnels better than anyone.
I used to pop Zoners when I went out, but now I don't need them. Rush–rush–rush. More marks. I'm the best of them all now. I don't need Zoners.
I was lying down with my back against the wall, having a cigarette, when I heard someone callout, "There's one of them!"
It didn't even make me nervous. I got up slow, peeked around the comer to see who was coming. I could always slip away.
They came closer. I couldn't make out their jackets. Time to run for the deep tunnels. They were real close, charging at me hard.
I took one more look.
It was a crew of bums.
© 1994 Andrew Vachss. All Rights Reserved.
Illustrations by Hannu Lukkarinen from Alamaailma.
"Bum's Rush" appears in Born Bad, a collection of Andrew Vachss' short stories published by Vintage Books.