Beneath the Surface
The city was tall, thick, and full of life. Never was there a moment of silence. The ocean was drowned by the sound of so many lives coming into contact. Samantha wasn’t sure how she was going to handle it, but knew life was best when not spent standing around a dead body. She got up to hurry away, but looked back at the knife on the ground. In disgust she put on one of her father’s old overcoats from her sack of clothes, grabbed the knife, slipped it into the coat pocket, and hurried on her way.
The alleyway spilled out onto a large balcony that appeared to be another market place. Bridges reached out like spider legs to archways that led inside out of the sun and wind. First step out of the alley landed a hand on her shoulder. Sam was jerked along the wall of the nearest building, an arm thrown across her shoulders. “You- you waited,” she stammered in genuine surprise.
“Oh this time, Salty,” Anne sighed as they strolled down the way. “Someone’s gotta carry all our things. Now come, you need to buy me a drink.”
“What for?” Sam asked.
“For the pleasure of drinking it,” Anne answered with an impatient whack to the back of Sam’s head.
“Shouldn’t we, I don’t know, be spending what little money we have on more important things?” Sam weakly suggested.
Anne gave her a glare. “Nothing be more important than drink.”
“Well, shouldn’t we be planning our next step?” Sam timidly pointed out. “Don’t you want to get to the flying islands? That won’t happen if you spend all our money on drink.”
“I don’t need money for such things,” Anne explained with a grin that made Sam frown.
Against Sam’s expectation, they didn’t wind up at some sort of tavern, but instead on a bench within one of the archways. When her confusion was pointed out Anne put her fingertips together, hat pulled down to hide her face. “There is one thing we need to do, which regrettably requires a clearer sort of head.”
The feeling of sickness returned. The weight of the knife within Sam’s pocket pulled on her, even as she sat. “Like what?” she finally asked.
Anne vaguely indicated the crowd of people that milled by on personal business. “Just watch, see if you can see what’s to be seen.” Sam scanned over the people, dressed in no single style. Amenand was a melting pot of cultures, wares from all borders entering the walls at all times. The city was the perfect spot for traders and merchants, as long as they can catch the attention of the average passerby. Many languages were to be heard, but those couldn’t be seen. Ages created an impossible range. Rarely had she ever seen so many people with graying hair. Her small town lacked the advanced medicines of a city built around a university, marking the average lifespan short. Of course, the ages reached to the opposite end of the spectrum. She watched mothers carry their infants, wrapped up in bundles. Young children clung to the pants and skirts of their parents. Older children boldly ran among the legs in games.
Time ticked on while Sam searched. What was so important to Anne to have her sit and wait? There had to be something more than whatever was on the obvious surface. She tried to look deeper. Adults, children, none of them truly had anything in common beyond their current location. Something had to be sticking out to Anne, what was it? Then, something did stick out. A woman, lavishly dressed, was leading her presumable servant, burdened with the task of carrying her shopping bags. Heading in the opposite direction was a young boy, dressed in an outfit of dirty, faded, patched clothes that were little more than rags with shoes that were too big. The comparison was what struck her, but then, in a flash of a moment, just a second, she caught something. The man was distracted with the shopping bags. Without a falter as he walked away, the boy slipped a leather wallet into his vest as if it were the most natural movement.
Sam began to stand, but was pulled back to her seat. She started to point out the thief, but was quieted. “You see it,” Anne said softly. “Amazing how many don’t.” Anne stood and leisurely walked in the direction of the thief. Sam followed her unsurely. “There are grander things to spend our money on than flight tickets, like drink,” Anne explained on the way. “So, we’ll take an alternate route. We need to steal our way onto a ship, and what better way than to be guided by the stealthiest little bastards in all of Amenand?”
“Thieves?” Sam whispered.
“Not just any thieves,” Anne corrected her. “Ragged, under aged, under represented, jaded in their youth, thieving orphans. Cities like this are full of them. The only issue is finding their sanctuary, and to do that we have to follow one.”
“Won’t they notice if they’re being followed?” Sam pointed out skeptically.
“They mainly watch out for guards around this time. We’re nothing but walking money trees to them. Just don’t look directly at ‘im,” Anne advised as she suddenly stopped to lean against a wall. “He’ll stay out until nightfall.”
“How are we going to follow without notice then?” Sam asked.
Anne smirked. “That’s the skill.”
They followed the boy down numerous paths, never getting too close. On occasion Anne would suddenly jerk Sam into a store to avoid encounter. At one such time they fell into a shoe shop. “Ye need shoes, lass,” Anne decide, looking around.
“My feet are fine,” Sam declined as she rubbed a foot against an ankle. Having walked the dirt streets of her town barefoot for most of her life, she didn’t view such niceties like footwear as required.
Anne watched the front window from the corner of her eye. “We don’t need you drawing attention as the barefoot woman. Now watch the brat.” She left Sam at the front window to find a good pair, no point in actually buying junk. They needed air boots; light, sturdy with true grips on the souls. Finding a black pair of boots that reached up the thigh and flat heels, she returned to Sam.
“He’s at that stall,” she announced quietly. Across the way the boy had turned his back on the public to look at a rack of newspapers.
“Probably caught whiff of a uniform somewhere. Put these on.”
“They’re too small,” Sam claimed, unable to fully fit her heel.
“Then get smaller feet,” Anne ordered as she searched for what had spooked the thief.
Sam glared. “Sorry to inconvenience you, your captainness,” she grumbled as she pried the boots back off.
“As you should be, so I’ll let it slide this time,” Anne commented before going to find another pair. The next pair appeared to fit fine enough and they hurried from the store, the boy on the move. His attitude had changed. At first he was slow, casual, merely a passerby with shifty eyes. Now he was stiff, staring straight ahead, quickly going about his way, hands innocently within pockets. Sam looked around for the reason and found a man walking in the same direction, blue uniform starched, baring the emblem of the city guards.
“What happens if they get caught?” she asked quietly.
“Don’t remember whether or not they still cut hands off. If he’s lucky, put in the factories as little more than slave labor. Realistically: death,” Anne replied simply. “Life risk they’re fully aware of.”
Sam glanced back at the officer. Without a look at Anne, she quickened her step and snatched the boy’s arm. “There you are Samuel, I’ve been looking all over for you. I told you to wait at the corner, not to move.” She lowered her voice as the boy tried to pry at her hand. “Running from that guard, right? Play along and I can get you away from him.” She straightened with theatrics. “Thought you’ve been snatched away! Now come on, we’re going to be late.” She dragged him around a corner. “Run.”
They ran together, across more bridges and squeezing between buildings. The boy pulled her down an alley, up a flight of stairs and immediately back down a different set. Sam kept her determined grip. Their cover blown she figured it best not to lose him. When the guard could officially be considered left behind, the boy stopped and tried to pull from her grip.
“Thanks and all that, but let go!” he exclaimed.
“Sorry, don’t think I can do that,” Sam claimed quietly.
“This is why I don’t plan, they never work. You can let him go,” Anne said as she walked up and grabbed the boy’s collar. “Because you’re not goin’ anywhere.”
The boy tried to twist free. “You better let go or I’ll make a scene,” he warned sharply.
“Make a scene I’ll say you stole my money and I’ll have your hands chopped off,” Anne growled back.
Eyes wide, the boy froze. “You wouldn’t.”
Anne grabbed his ear and began to drag him back the way they had come. “Guard! Officer!”
The boy pulled at her hands, struggling to keep up with her longer stride. “Okay! Okay! I’ll do whatevah ya want! Just stop, please!”
Anne stopped with an accomplished grin.
“Bully,” Sam muttered.
“Go-getter,” Anne corrected. “Alright kid. I know this city, and its little gangs. Take us to your hangout, we wanna meet the family.”
“Why should I?” the boy snapped stubbornly.
“Oh officer!” Anne started again.
“Wait! Wait!” the boy exclaimed with a helpless pout. “I’ll take ya.” Anne kept a tight grip on his small hand as he led them forever down until they reached the foundations of the city, shadowed by the pathways and balconies of society above. From there he took them to a dismal looking platform lit with all the light a single, yellow bulb could muster. Train tracks cut across their path. Not long after they arrived there was a rumble that quickly grew louder. A bright light came from down the tracks to precede the train.
Sam stood in mixed awe and intimidation when the beast of technology arrived. It rumbled to a stop before them with a hiss of steam. The rusted and vandalized metal body was a stark contrast to the shining glass of the city’s higher levels. A series of automated pulleys drew the door open for them to board. They entered a long cabin of broken seats and poor lighting. There were other people present, but they strictly kept to themselves. After a minute the door slid shut and the train lurched forward.
Through the dirty windows they watched the shadowed city slide by. After a few minutes there was a roar of engines like a pack of mechanical wolves on the prowl. The boy they had caught noticeably moved away from one side of the train. Intrigued, Anne stepped closer.
A group of strange machines that ran on pairs of thick rubber wheels swung up to run alongside the train, manned by men in thick leather coats. They skillfully rode the powerful bikes along the tracks, sliding around support structures and broken light poles. The sight of them made Anne grin, which made Sam frown. The group followed the train for a few miles before revving their engines and disappearing back into the shadows.
The train came to a stop in lesser region of the city when they departed. The buildings were obviously older with little to no bridges between them, and in various stages of disrepair. The people were quieter, dirtier, shiftier.
One particular building seemed ready to fall as it leaned on the building next to it. The boy crawled through a broken window, the front door bordered up. Over rotten floors, they climbed a staircase that creaked with every movement. Sliding down a slanted floor, they jumped through a crumbled wall that smelled of mold into the next building. Down a whole set of stairs, they ducked through a trapdoor, hidden by every window and door bordered up beyond access.
A cold, dark staircase took them to a heavy door, barely visible. The boy knocked out a rhythm and the door opened. Light flared out from behind the door. A girl as old as the boy looked out, gasped, and ran. Anne pushed through the door to find a long room with dirty brick walls, poorly lit by dirty narrow windows, near the ceiling. The boy took them along the room passed messy pallets of tattered blankets and cloth and piles of worthless trinkets that a child would collect. Ruins of a wall in the middle of the room suggested that it extended beneath the next building.
On the far side of the room sat an ugly compilation of machinery that appeared experimentally stitched together. The gears loyally turned in the careful puzzle, pressure dials holding at a steady position. Hooked up the way it was, the thing appeared to be a power generator, primarily feeding a series of naked, mismatched bulbs attached to the ceiling, and a small stove that seemed to have been repaired with guess work. The machine undoubtedly worked, but it rattled and noisily shook with an occasional loud clank.
“Henry,” the boy called as they neared the back of the room. Two boys and a girl, all around twelve in age, stepped from the shadows. The girl held a thick wooden pole, a boy a sharp dagger, and another an actual sword that suffered from chips and spots of rust.
“We come peacefully,” Sam quickly promised, showing her empty hands.
“But we don’t have to,” Anne pointed out, moving her coat to show the knife hilt. “I will speak with the eldest.”
“Why?” the sword wielder demanded.
“To suggest a partnership that could benefit the both of us. Turn us away, and the guards will be here before sundown,” Anne promised.
“How do we know you won’t go to them anyway?” the girl pointed out.
“Because you are thieves, as I know from yer pickpocket over there, and the flying islands ain’t so different, contrary to popular belief. Professional courtesy. So oldest, now.”
“I’m oldest,” a soft voice claimed, standing from where he had knelt by a sickbed. “Thirteen.” His frame was thin, easily smaller than the three armed guards, undoubtedly the type to pass the sparse food to those around him. His hair was that of dirty straw, clothes little more than a cloth sash over his chest and ruined shorts. Young in body, his blue eyes were that of an old man.
Anne looked him critically up and down. “Yer not thirteen,” she stated in absolute fact.
The boy lifted an eyebrow. “And you’re not dead, Captain Cash.”
“Sharp lad,” Anne grumbled.
“There’s more to a person than the clothes they wear. I like your profession curtsy, but I was brought up to memorize the wanted posters with big awards,” the boy claimed. “But we won’t go to the guards now. You’ve come all this way, mum. What do you want from us?”
“My history is in the flying islands and the open ways. We need to find a back door to a merchant air ship, at least a way past the security of the terminals. I’m sure your little gang is familiar with the air port, frustrated travelers make fer loose pockets.” She reached into her bag and withdrew two golden coins to rub together. Numerous eyes locked onto the glint of the money in the dirty light.
The boy looked beyond the money, at the holder. “You could buy cheap passage for that,” he pointed out.
“As you know, lad, I’m supposed to be dead. Want to be as far under the map as possible.”
The boy looked around the room. After a minute he stuck his palm out. Anne dropped a coin into his hand. He weighed, felt, and bit it. “Henry knows the ways big enough for adult bodies,” he claimed with vague indication of the boy with the dagger. “He’ll get you as close as the ships, but stowing away is no promise. He’ll show you tonight.” He held his hand out for the second coin.
Anne closed her fist around the gold. “You get this one after the fact. Until then, I have business to wander through the city without the need to look after another body. Look after my big-footed mate and I’ll be back with some extra coin for ya trouble.”
The boy looked between the women and agreed. Anne walked for the stairs despite Samantha’s awkward spluttering. Upon opening the door a teenage boy stumbled and fell back on the stairs.
The wooden crate he had been holding fell with loud clangs as he held a bleeding hand. Anne looked down at him with a cocked eyebrow. “How old are you?”
“S-six-sixteen next week,” he answered meekly, eyes cast down to watch blood slowly pool in his cupped palm.
Anne glanced over her shoulder for a second before turning back to him, fists on hips. “You’re in the way,” she growled down at him. He scrambled back up the steps to make way. She ascended the stairs and passed him cowering against the wall in the top room. A twitch in his direction sent him to the basement with a squeak. Anne continued on her way with a snicker.
Down in the basement the teenage boy had frozen at seeing Sam. Noticing the blood that dripped down the side of the crate, Sam slowly approached him. “You’re hurt.”
He tilted his hand to see the rough slash that reached across his palm. “B-broken window glass,” he muttered, head down as Sam took his hand.
“Come on, we need to stop the bleeding,” she told him and took him to her bag. In silence he sat and watched her wipe his hand. He stiffened as she poured a clear liquid into his palm. It fizzled as it entered the cut.
“This is why we don’t use the back windows,” the young leader of the group claimed as he watched Sam bandage the boy’s hand.
“Felt like I was being followed,” he whispered. “Got what I went for, though,” he added, glancing at the crate.
“You’re about the same age as me,” Sam observed. “Why aren’t you in charge?”
“Dylan’s the real oldest,” the leader agreed, pronouncing the name die-lahn.
“I couldn’t do it,” Dylan muttered. He curled his fingers around the clean bandage and stood up. Picking up the crate he shuffled to the generator. With a look toward the dirty windows, he switched the machine off. The silence after the constant noise buzzed in their ears. The younger children that had been napping on dirty pallets woke.
Crate on one side, Dylan pulled a battered toolbox closer. His hands fidgeted in thought before he grabbed a dog-eared journal and propped it open to a marked page. Sam curiously watched him partially dismantle the mess of wires and gears and pipes to replace parts and tighten bolts.
“Did you build this?” she eventually asked.
Dylan’s busy hands never faltered. “Fixed it, mostly,” he muttered. “And fixing it again. Factory parts would be better than this junk yard trash. But that’s what I do, fix things that are cast aside… Nothing’s worthless, just left behind, lost its purpose.”
“How’d you wind up here?” Sam continued to ask.
“Parents disappeared,” Dylan murmured.
“So you’re an orphan too?” Sam clarified.
Dylan shook his head. “Just disappeared – there one day, gone the next. They didn’t do it on purpose, couldn’t have been on purpose,” he claimed in the tone of a well practiced maxim.
Sam sat on the ground next to him. “What makes you say that?”
The tool in his hand stopped as he stared at the gears. “I was nine, woke up to my sister crying in the morning. Six months old, left in the crib. Looked through the whole house – Mom’s purse, Dad’s shoes, everything was still there, but they were gone. Just gone.” Fallen silent, his head dropped a few degrees. With a deep breath he began to put the gears back into place. The work steadied him. “I waited for them: two days, three, a week. Ran out of food. Janis kept crying. Rent collector came by near the third week. I had spent all the money on food. Got tossed on the street. Gave Janis to an all girl orphanage, nice people like baby girls. Tried to keep an eye on her after that. She was adopted in a month, so I just had myself. Wandered around, nearly got caught stealing but a boy saved me and brought me here. He got of age three years ago, and here I am.” He turned the generator on. The machine was still noisy, but the shaking and clanks had stopped. He smiled in a hollow triumph as the lights turned back on.