As it happened, I had already heard of Kashuba and Breaker.
Elk, a twelve-year-old boy I knew in the orphanage, was related to one of the boys in Kashuba’s group. He had spent several months with the pack, until the previous year’s winter had set in. “It was so cold in that old factory,” he told me, “that I thought we would all freeze to death. I don’t know how the others were able to put up with it.” The cold weather affected Elk so badly that he gave up and sought refuge, eventually ending up in the orphanage a couple of months before I was kidnapped. He had regaled us with stories of Breaker’s exploits, so it was a no-brainer that I went to see him when I wanted to find out more about Kashuba and his friends.
The logical thing would have been for Elk to take us to meet Kashuba, but when I asked he point-blank refused.
“No way! As far as they’re concerned I’m a deserter, a pussy that couldn’t handle the life,” he said. “They’d probably beat me like they did another kid while I was there.”
I was surprised the pack would beat one of their own members, so I asked Elk what had happened. He explained that the boy had inadvertently led a group of thugs to the Breaker hideout. Kashuba and his pack had to fight tooth and nail to drive them off. One of the invaders had actually died, and several of the Breaker guys were injured. I suggested that the boy had caused a serious breach of security and that Kashuba was simply making a point, albeit rather harshly, by beating the kid concerned.
“Yeah, maybe, but I ain’t gonna risk it. I think Kashuba has a mean streak.” He thought for a moment. “And Rey is even meaner. I reckon he enjoyed beating that kid.”
That sounded ominous, but I needed to contact the scallies somehow. There were other packs, but Kashuba’s Breaker was at the top of the pecking order. Besides, I had an ‘in’ via Elk. He knew the location of the hideout and he was able to give me inside information on the group’s dynamics and relationships. I hoped the incident Elk described was a one-off, and that the invaders were not from a regular scallies pack. During our talks Elk did concede that Kashuba seemed to prefer to negotiate or befriend rather than fight.
The information Elk gave me was invaluable. He was able to show me on a map where the hideout was located. It was in an old factory complex in an almost-forgotten part of the city. It was literally in the shadow of skyscrapers, and only about two kilometres from the orphanage.
Elk had no idea who owned the place. Kashuba probably didn’t, either, since the scallies were merely squatting there. The secretariat guys showed me how to check federation property records to find out who owned the property. I discovered that it was owned by a deceased estate.
Elk told Darm and me as much as he could remember about the group of boys who made up Breaker.
Kashuba was eighteen and claimed to have been on the streets since he was eight. He was a charismatic leader and the rest of the boys revered him. Elk told us that Kashuba was strict, but fair, and everything he did seemed to be geared to the good of the group. He had a girlfriend, Masoko, who lived with the pack. Elk had heard that Kashuba and Masoko had a baby together some time before he lived with them, but he believed that the child had died.
Rey, deputy leader, was sixteen. According to Elk Rey was a really tough kid. He owned a crossbow, spent all his spare time practising with it, and was a good shot. The pack was only lightly armed, partly because weapons were hard to come by, but also because Breaker was respected by other scallies packs, and there was little to fear from anyone else. As far as the law was concerned the scallies were a minor problem, and ordinary people stayed away from them. The general view was that they rarely harmed anyone, and did what they had to do to survive. According to Elk the Breaker group really did not need to fight much. When they did, they made do with baseball bats and knives. Rey’s crossbow was their heavy artillery.
Elk’s cousin, Cris, was thirteen and had been with the pack for several years. His family were DöhmCorp victims. His parents had struggled to keep their family together but when the money ran out they gave up. I cried when Elk told me what happened next. Apparently deeply depressed and desperate to end the hardship, the father had stabbed two of his children and his wife to death using a kitchen knife, and then turned the knife on himself. Cris had been out trying to find food for the family and arrived back just as his father died. He had gone to Elk’s family for help, but they weren’t much better off. Cris disappeared one day, and the next time Elk saw him he was running with Breaker. Elk’s family lasted longer, but it eventually disintegrated as well. Elk’s parents died within a few weeks of each other, leaving him alone in the world. That was when he joined Breaker.
Another boy was Tyras, who became Elk’s closest friend in the pack. Like the others he was from a family that had fallen on hard times. He was a few weeks older than Elk and had been with the pack for two years when Elk got to know him. He took the newly-orphaned Elk under his wing and taught him a lot. Tyras sounded like an interesting character. Elk said he was well-spoken and was quiet and thoughtful. He even wrote poetry.
The number in the pack apparently varied from time to time. When Elk was with them there were fifteen boys and Masoko, who was the only girl. Elk was in awe of Kashuba but he liked Masoko. He said she was always friendly and treated him well.
* * *
I wondered how I could help the scallies when the building they lived in was owned by an estate that apparently didn’t take any interest in the place. I talked it over with Errol.
“Why don’t you buy it, Echo?” he suggested.
“Whoa! Could I?”
“I don’t see why not. Let’s see what we can find out.”
The DöhmCorp property group did some investigating and found that the founder and owner of the factory had died. His heirs had lacked their father’s nous, and had run the company into the ground. In an attempt to extract as much money as they could from it they had stripped out all equipment, fixtures and fittings, and placed the land and buildings on the market.
There had been little interest, mainly because of the property’s location in a run down area of the city. Several years had passed, and the heirs were now pretty desperate for someone—anyone—to take the place off their hands.
We had feared that any involvement by DöhmCorp would attract attention and possibly increase the asking price, but the family were so anxious to get rid of the property they didn’t even seem to notice that the purchaser was DöhmCorp, and they let it go for what was almost a giveaway figure. We didn’t even bother with an inspection. I wasn’t terribly interested in its current state. I was focussed on being in a position to help the Breaker kids.
The future of the property now assured, I just had to work out how to provide that help.
* * *
My mentors were unwilling to allow me to simply march in to Kashuba’s hideout. We needed to gather intelligence. After discussions with them on the best way to do that, Darm and I bought a remote-controlled drone. It was so tiny I feared we would lose it. In flight, it looked just like a bee. IG technicians helped us to set it up so we could fly it via a hand-held control panel. The drone transmitted a live video feed which we viewed on a portable screen. After numerous test flights both of us were able to control the drone precisely (“It’s just like playing computer games,” Darm declared) and we were ready to put it into active service.
Our plan was to fly the drone over the Breaker hideout to get a feel for the layout and to see if we could spot any activity. Since we wanted Elk’s help to interpret what the video feed was showing us, we flew the drone from the grounds of the orphanage. For our first flight we chose a day when most of the kids were out on an excursion. As it was we had an intrigued audience. I didn’t try to stop the kids gawking—after all, I knew firsthand how boring life could get in the orphanage.
Launching the tiny drone was easy. You just sat it on a flat surface—an open hand held palm upwards was sufficient—pressed the start button, and used the controller to set it flying. The drone was virtually silent, so we expected to be able to get close to people without their even realising it was there, unless they happened to see it. Darm was pilot for our first reconnaissance flight, and we all watched the screen intently as he guided the drone towards the target area.
I noticed a familiar street. “Hey, that’s where you rescued me!”
Darm chuckled. “So it is. Who would have thought we were so close to the Breaker hideout?”
A couple of minutes later Elk spoke. “There… see that fence?”
“Yes,” Darm and I said in unison.
“Watch for a hole in the wire… nearly there… that’s it! That’s where you get into the place.”
Following Elk’s directions, Darm flew the drone over the fence and towards a double-storey brick building set out in a rectangle around an enclosed courtyard. It was separate from the rows of factory buildings we could see beyond it. I guessed it had been offices.
Darm flew the drone around the outside of the building a couple of times. “How do you get in there?” he asked.
Elk pointed to a portico in the middle of the long north side. “There’s a door there, but someone has to let you in.”
Darm flew the drone lower and hovered in front of the portico. There was an impressive set of double doors. “Yep, that’s it,” Elk said. “You won’t be able to go through the door so go up over the building and into the courtyard… that’s it. This is where Rey practices with his crossbow. Now, turn left. Now through those trees…”
We spent a few minutes looking around the courtyard, which looked to be about fifty metres by twenty-five metres, with Elk all the time explaining what we were seeing. A door in the centre of the wing at the eastern end of the courtyard—one of the short wings—led into the rooms the scallies called home. Elk said they felt safe there because the only way into the courtyard was through the door under the portico, and except for the time he told us about, no outsiders had ever broken in. They kept the portico door barred on the inside and always left at least one person in the hideout to act as guard and doorkeeper. Since the incident when security was breached the door was only opened to allow anyone in once it was confirmed who was on the other side.
“What’s in the other wings?” I asked.
“I think they might have been offices,” Elk replied. “There are toilets in each wing, but besides them just lots of empty rooms.”
“So, they only use the one wing?”
“Yeah, and not even all of that. I think they chose that end because it’s a bit warmer ’cause it’s sheltered by the rest of the building. And that wing has a kitchen and bathrooms as well as toilets. I don’t think they use the upstairs rooms at all. At least, they didn’t when I was there.”
For the next half hour we surveyed the building and its surroundings, including the factory structures behind it. Darm and I took turns piloting the drone and we were both pleased that we were able to get into some pretty tight corners and still retain control. I was hovering the drone above the courtyard when a boy emerged from the east wing, carrying something in each hand.
“That’s Rey!” Elk exclaimed.
I flew down for a closer look. Rey was stocky and muscular. His head was shaven except for a wide strip of black hair on top that went from his forehead to the back of his skull, with a fringe that fell down to his eyebrows. It looked a bit weird to me. He was wearing a black leather jacket with the zip at the front half undone. It looked like he wasn’t wearing a shirt under it. A crucifix on a short chain dangled from his left earlobe and there was a stud in the centre of his upper lip.
“Cool haircut and hardware,” Darm said, sarcastically.
“I think Rey reckons it makes him look tougher,” Elk said, then giggled. “As if he needs to look tougher!”
“What’s he got in his hands?” I wondered, as much to myself as anyone else.
“His crossbow,” said Elk, “and some arrows. He’s probably going to practice. Keep watching and you’ll see how good he is.”
Rey walked to the other end of the courtyard and took a makeshift easel and sheet of board from under a dense shrub. He set up the easel and board, which had a target marked on it, and then walked back towards the east wing. I followed him and we watched as he cocked the bow, nocked an arrow, and took aim.
“Keep the drone out of his line of fire,” Darm urged.
“Got it,” I replied as I concentrated on piloting it.
Rey fired the arrow and we saw it hit the target. He cocked and reloaded quickly and fired again.
I flew the drone right up to the target. Both arrows had hit almost dead centre. There was only a few millimetres between them.
“Blimey!” Darm said.
“Told you he was good,” said Elk.
Rey retrieved his arrows and headed back to the east wing. I turned the control box over to Darm just as another guy came out and began talking to Rey.
“That’s Kashuba,” said Elk.
The two boys stood in the courtyard for several minutes, apparently deep in conversation.
“Let’s bring it home,” I said, when they went back inside. “We’ve done enough for today.”
* * *
Over the next month we deployed the drone several more times, collecting information about Breaker, their headquarters, and their routine. At first we didn’t want to risk losing contact with the drone by flying it inside the building, even though the manufacturer claimed that the signal could penetrate several layers of walls and floors. Our greatest fear was not losing control of the drone, or even losing it altogether, but that someone would notice it and recognise what it was. They would then know that someone was spying on them.
Eventually our curiosity got the better of us and we decided to try flying inside the building. After experimenting in the palace we found that as long as the building was above ground there seemed to be no problem maintaining the signal. With that knowledge we ventured into the Breaker hideout through a broken window that overlooked the courtyard. Inside, the building was a bit like a rabbit warren, but with straight passages. We found the rooms the kids were using regularly—kitchen, lounge area and bathrooms, and several that were obviously sleeping quarters—and a few others they apparently used from time to time. They seemed to be disciplined because all of the rooms were clean and tidy. That surprised me, since they were squatting illegally in the building, and everything I had heard about squatters pointed to dirty, untidy, squalid messes.
We were gathering information about Kashuba and his scallies, but we were no closer to actually making contact with them. From our observations we believed it would be safe enough to go to their hideout, but we felt we needed to make some sort of approach first. Darm and I discussed our dilemma with his father one evening.
“How do you think Kashuba would react if you wrote him a letter?” the emperor asked. “You own the property, so it would be perfectly legitimate for you to write to the illegal occupier.”
I shrugged. “I don’t want to scare him off.”
“Hmm. What if you made it clear that you only want to talk with him?”
“Yeah, that might work.”
After further thought I bought a communicator and entered my name and details in its address book. Darm and I, with his father’s help, composed a letter:
My name will probably mean nothing to you. Although I am just a kid of fourteen, I own the old factory you use as Breaker headquarters. I know you are taking good care of the part of the property you occupy and I have no wish to evict you or make life hard for you.
I would, however, be grateful if you would agree to meet with me to discuss a mutually beneficial proposal which would make your tenancy secure but result in a greatly improved asset for me. You may set the time and place, and choose who will represent Breaker at the meeting. I will attend with one friend.
I do not know if you have the means to contact me, so I am enclosing with this letter a prepaid communicator. If you wish you may use it to make an audio or video call to me, or to send me a text message. My details are in its address book.
We asked one of the guard detail to deliver the letter by slipping it under the portico doors. It was printed on plain paper and in a plain envelope addressed ‘Kashuba, Breaker Headquarters’. We had considered using the drone to drop the letter inside the courtyard, but decided that might be too freaky for Kashuba and the others.
We had done all we could do for the moment. I just hoped Kashuba would be willing to talk to me—and that someone in Breaker would know how to use the communicator!
The second evening after the letter was delivered my communicator beeped. The caller ID showed that it was the freebie we had delivered to Kashuba. I pressed the video button to take the call.
“Hello,” I said (rather lamely, I thought later), “this is Echo.”
“Uh… hi,” a male voice said, somewhat tentatively, “this is Kashuba.” His image appeared on my screen.
“Thank you for calling,” I said. “I know this must all seem weird to you, but I would like to help you if you will let me. I’m sorry if my letter freaked you out, but I couldn’t think of a better way to make contact, and I didn’t know if it would be easy for you to get in touch with me, so that’s why I sent the communicator. At least this way we can talk. I have a proposal that I would like to discuss with you, but it would be easier and better if we could do that in person.”
Kashuba nodded. “We have plenty of questions, but we are willing to meet you, provided you agree to our conditions.”
“Sure. That’s fair enough.”
“Okay. We meet here at the old factory. Saturday morning at 10 am. You and one other person. No weapons. No communicators. No bugs. Knock on the door under the portico. You will be asked for your names and a pass phrase, which will be ‘Strictly Ballroom’.”
“Thank you!” I said, smiling. “Your conditions are acceptable. The person with me will be my friend Darm. He’s a little older than me. I should tell you that my bodyguard will escort us to the portico, but they will remain outside the building. They will have small arms only.”
There was a pause as he looked away from the communicator. “Fine. As long as they stay outside that is acceptable.”
“Thank you, Kashuba. Saturday, then.”
I ended the call and allowed myself to relax a little. The conversation was brief but Kashuba had agreed to meet with us! I was elated yet apprehensive. We had our meeting but we would be well inside Breaker territory and we would be vulnerable. We would just have to trust Kashuba.
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