Nico swept out of the open manhole. She was grinning like a schoolgirl. It wasn't until I had made this mental comparison that I realised that, in all honesty, she was probably young enough to be a schoolgirl.
“Why aren't you in school?” There was no drive in my words. I was thinking out loud.
She gave me a confused look, a curious smile emerging after a disarmed moment. The grime on her face, fresh and dark from the underground that she had just emerged from, had an element of Victorian orphan about it, especially when combined with her mucky, plain clothes. This is of course excepting the night vision goggles which were resting on her forehead. Out of place? Perhaps. But it was a sign to me of what she was: a poor child with deft hands.
I didn't know much about her. Well, I still don't. But she was young. And she hadn't known any other life than the one she had: drifting through the streets of Mireview, biding her time between voracious thefts and excursions to the rooftops for the promise of a safe sleep, away from the nightmarish hands of the inner city night. Those biting winter winds and dark, enclosed alleyways were enough to drive any man mad, but the men who stalked the poorer districts of Mireview had already succumbed to that far, far before December had arrived.
“Hey wiseguy. You're daydreaming again.”
I shook myself. “I'm sorry – what did you say?”
She wiped her sleeve across her upper lip. Given the state of the sleeve, it did little to remove the grime. “I said I have a job. You're watching me do it! And besides, no school would have me. Look at me. Why would anyone want to try educating me?”
I kept hold of her gaze for a moment, biding my time. “Because you're lovely.”
She glanced down for a moment. If not for the black marks over her face, her blush would have been visible. She may have wanted to say something dismissive, and yesterday she might have done it. Something like 'Shut up' or 'Get a life, you Middle District ponce', but today was different. Today, I had come back to her.
Without a word, we moved on. The manholes weren't going to clear themselves, and she had only treated four so far. After about five minutes of twists and turns down the streets of the poor district, a route I am sure only Nico knew, we arrived at the next manhole. She placed her feet on the ladder and proceeded to move down.
The manholes of poor district. What should have been an easy part of their day to day infrastructure was now instead a major injury hazard. The covers had been removed and carted off to the factories years ago, before either of us had been born. Any iron is valuable to production, I suppose, and this was a quick and easy source when the industry needed it. The promise of their return, I imagine, was accepted without question.
Poor Nico in a poor district. How could she know about the manhole covers that ensured the safety and protection of passing pedestrians in the Middle and Upper Districts? She barely knew about any world outside of this one: cold, dark, and dirty.
And still she whistled as she swept down the manhole, scrubbing away merrily.
When she popped her head out once again, I had thought of a more intelligent, probing question. Hell, it was even something I was genuinely curious about. Almost. I grinned and placed my hands behind my head.
“So... how'd you get your goggles, Neeks?”
She waited until she was out of the hole and standing in front of me before she cleared her throat and said, “I bought these goggles to help me do my job.”
I eyed her warily. She had said that a little too loudly. “To help you see in the dark?”
“That's right. I bought them with my savings.” She then glanced around us, grabbed my hand and half-dragged me down the nearest alleyway. I was too shocked at the sudden change in direction that I didn't say anything at all. Not until she practically threw me out of her grip and shoved me against the wall.
“Ow! Hey, st-”
“Quit whining and shut up, you big fat fuck! Do you know where you are? We are not in Middle any more, you get me? We're in poor. Poor. Where kids like me get their fucking hands cut off for stealing bread. Where even lying on duty – which I have just done, by the way – means more pain for me than you can imagine in your entire fucking life. You get me, you Middle District prick?”
Nodding like a vibrating ruler which was profusely dribbling, I waited for a moment. I took a step away from the alley wall, feeling something unpleasantly slimy on my back as I did so, and raised my hands slowly.
“L.. Look... I'm sorry, all right? I wasn't thinking.”
She had turned to face the dim lamp light lazily casting its glow on her face. She didn't move. “No. No, you weren't. You don't have to.”
“You don't have to think.” She glanced my way. “I do.”
She strode out of the alley. Purposeful. Confident. Resolute. Knowing that she still had twenty five manholes to descend and scrub. And that she would complete the task alone.
I swore under my breath. How could I have been so stupid? Nico was right. I was an idiot. I still am.
Most people in Mireview would probably tell you that much from what had gone on the day before.
I had seen her pop up from one of the manholes and stride away, happily going onto the next stop on her eternal voyage to clear regular passage into the bowels of Mireview's sewage system. Those are her words, not mine, whispered in an alleyway this evening between manholes. And they were laced with the undeniable edge of sarcasm, as surely as her goggles were tinged with the reflections from the dim street lights which led our way.
To this day, I cannot tell you what had made me run up, talk to the girl, and arrange the meeting. Had I been overly curious, throwing the caution of my position as a resident of Middle District to the wind? Had I wanted a change from the horrendous monotony of life that the structure of Mireview's society had created?
No. I knew that much.
It was her face. Her face, complete with joy and wonder, even though she was considered the lowest of the low. And the goggles. They looked so very out of place. It sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know how she could look so vibrant, so different, so full of life.
I knew that now, I would never know.
I made to start moving, then stopped. I was alone, and had been now for several minutes. And I was in a dark, dingy, poor district alleyway. And I was wearing the distinctive beige threads of the Middle District. And there was the sound of heavy breathing coming from behind me.
Before I knew it, I was on my front, sprawled on the ground, tasting blood in my mouth and writhing with the sudden blast of pain in my back. I didn't have time to think before a pair of rough hands grabbed my shoulders from behind and pulled me up, forcing me onto my knees. They grasped my arms next, tugging at them in ragged fashion, until my hands were behind my head.
By now, I was sobbing uncontrollably. I must have looked pathetic.
A shadow emerged in my peripheral vision. I couldn't see, but it walked with a limp. He was male. I felt that much from his laboured breaths. He was also smart. He knew, even now, that it was stupid to reveal himself.
“You got any money, boy?”
My nodding returned with renewed vigour.
“On the ground in front of you.”
I moved my hands to my pockets.
“Don't you try nothing funny. You hear? This knife is pointing at your fucking neck, Middle District.”
The nodding continued as I threw the contents of my pockets onto the ground.
He sniffed as he surveyed his winnings. “That all?”
“Jesus Christ. I thought you Middles were supposed to be loaded.”
He shuffled around for a moment before striking me hard in the face. I collapsed to the ground as he dragged himself to gather the pieces of copper and silver I had thrown down. He sniffed again before grabbing me by the shirt and pulling me up. Now I could see him.
He was old. Very old. Too old to be attacking anyone, least of all me. His face was contorted in a rage that went beyond my understanding. His balding, windswept hair told of a life spent on the streets with nothing but scavenged crumbs and raw road kill for nourishment. The creases and cracks in his skin were deepened by his lowered eyebrows and grimacing lips until he barely resembled an old man at all. But it was his eyes that cut to the soul. Dark enough to be black as far as I knew in this dim light and my watery vision – giant pupils which bore down on me relentlessly, asking questions of me that I couldn't answer; shaking an empty purse to a terrified death.
He grasped me and shook violently. “I don't believe you. You've got more. Give it to me, you lying, Middle bastard!”
All I could do was squeal. God, it's embarrassing to remember.
The man held his knife up to my face. His eyes looked at the point. It was red and dripping. The pain in my back flared up at the sight; my subconscious was making the link for me. His eyes looked up at me. Now he was grinning.
“You know what the penalty is for lying to an elder in poor, don't you boy?”
As his words sunk into me, I finally found words of my own. “Y... y... yeah. I do.”
The old man looked taken aback for a moment. Hell, so was I. He shrugged to himself, shaking off his confusion, before leaning in, his knife raised. I closed my eyes.
His sudden gargled scream sent me falling to the ground in shock, my eyes opening to the sight of Nico throttling the old man, choking him to death with a coil of wire. All he could do was thrash around madly, but Nico, though small, was strong. Strong enough for an old man past sixty, anyway. And she had the darkness on her side. She held him in place until he stopped moving.
I wish I could tell you that this wasn't a horrifyingly lengthy process, but it was. The old man just wouldn't die. He kept fighting for a while, but even after he lost his strength, it was another several moments before his eyes clouded over, and death took its hold over him. How Nico kept holding him is utterly unthinkable. I still wake up in cold sweats with the memory of those twisted moments: the thrashing arms, the clouded eyes, the blinding pain, the foul stench. The loss of life.
I couldn't say anything, only watch as she stood up over the dead old man. Her goggles were on, which meant that she could see everything in front of her. I was suddenly utterly ashamed.
In that moment, hazily watching her there, that I realised. Her mirth was a façade. It was no more a reality than her chances of ever leaving this hell hole of a city district. It was a ruse – an act that she played out every day to escape the unrelenting reality of her surroundings. I hadn't seen that. And I had paid the price.
She turned and walked away, discarding the wire as she moved. She paused for a moment before removing the goggles. She set them down at the entrance to the alleyway and moved on.
As I found myself disappearing into an unwilling and uneven unconsciousness, my eyes stayed firmly fixed on those night vision goggles. What had they been?
I decided just as I lost my mind.