Caged Within Clouds: “Nobody Notices the Street Rats“

By Rachel York

I bustled down the street, keeping my head down and my eyes forward. My stomach grumbled as I turned down a side street; I hadn’t eaten all day, and the day before, I had only found a small crust of bread. As I emerged from the alleyway, a cart full of gleaming red apples caught my eye. I approached the cart, feigning curiosity. The cart-keeper glanced over at me, then continued his ramblings with another customer, declaring,

“Yes, yes, these are the finest apples hydroponics can grow. Yes, yes, six copper pieces each, apples are very hard to grow in this weather! I’m practically giving them away at this price!”

Deciding he seemed busy enough, I snatched an apple from the cart, quickly hiding it under my overcoat. I stayed a moment more, as if waiting for the apple peddler to finish with his indecisive customer, then nodded at him and walked away. I hated stealing, but at this point, there was nothing else to do. In this day and age, it was steal or starve.

Ducking again into a side street, I crouched and slipped the apple from my coat. Ravenously, I tore into it, barely stopping to breathe in between bites. As I chewed the apple down to the core, I picked out the seeds, slipping them into a pocket. They might come in handy for bartering. A certain botanist came to mind.

Later in the day, I returned to my shabby lean-to. I plucked the apple seeds from my pocket, running them through my fingers.Once it was late enough, I would go to the botanist’s lab to see if I could get anything for them. Sliding them back into my pocket, I picked out a small gear from a different pocket. I had slipped this, too, into my pocket while I was out scavenging today.

I didn’t steal it, though. I found it. In Avarium, there’s enough junk littering the streets that by picking pieces up, I’m probably doing the city a service. I don’t usually pick up trinkets like this, but this gear had a curious little symbol on it that I found intriguing. It swooped and curled in such an interesting fashion, I just couldn’t leave it lying there.

I fingered it curiously as a woman in a scrappy peacoat walked past me. She carried the stink of recycled paper on the tails of her coat, and her fingertips were covered in smudgy black ink. Word on the street was that she wrote for The Pulp. It was a paper infamous for misinformation and conspiracy, but I didn’t care about that. My stomach rumbled again, and I called out,

“Have any leftovers from lunch today, miss?” She tossed a scrap of bread at me, mumbling.

Gratefully, I picked it up, this time taking my time to eat. It was getting darker now, so I decided head to the botanist’s lab. I walked down the street, looking up at the starry sky. I was so busy looking up, I almost missed the body lying on the street. At first, I thought it was just a street-cleaner passed out drunk, as they are wont to be while on the job. But this body was lying in a pool of blood. Getting closer, I realized this was that same writer from The Pulp, the one who gave me bread. I was tempted to search her body for valuables, but before I could make a decision, somebody approached. He was a grimy man with a cart and alcohol on his breath—a street cleaner.

“Ohh you really did this’un a number, didn’cha?” He leered at me, beady eyed, probably sizing me up as a murderer.

Looking down, I muttered, “Found it like this.”

He leered a moment more, seeming to decide that no, a grubby street rat couldn’t have killed her. He shrugged and turned away from me. He hefted the body onto the cart unsteadily and made his way down the street.

I had seen street cleaners cart bodies and other junk before, but I’d never seen where they took them. Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to follow him—and the body.

After about an hour’s walk into a part of the city I’d never seen, we came upon an ancient building. I could tell it was old not only because it was falling apart—everything in this city was falling apart—but because it was made of brick. These days, everything was made of scrap metal. The building only went up a couple of stories, but stairs on the outside suggested a basement too. It was topped with a chimney, out of which poured thick, black smoke.

Mumbling to himself, the street cleaner hefted the body over his shoulder and stumbled down the stairs. Something smelled off about this area, but somewhat familiar. It reminded me of the botanist’s lab. I knew this must be some dark business, but instead of leaving, I made my way around the side of the building, looking for a window into the basement. After passing a couple cloudy windows, I found a clear-ish one. Crouching down, I peeked into it.

The street cleaner was in there, talking to a man—tall, wearing some sort of apron. On a metal table lay the body. The man handed something to the cleaner, who shook his hand and left the room.

Looking around the room, I saw more bodies, along with some odd tools and familiar looking bags.

Finally, it hit me. The smell. The bodies. Terrified, I ran.