Chapter 1: The City of Metal
A dull, rapid drumming permeates through the ceiling, filling my ears. It’s loud, and irritating, and it hasn’t stopped for hours. It’s keeping me awake, and filling me with the very passionate desire to hit something. This is the best feeling I’ve had in weeks. That probably sounds strange, so let me elaborate a just little. The reason that this maddening drumming is so great is that it means that, at least for tonight, there’s a roof over my head. If it just so happens to be connected to three very cramped metal walls, so be it. There isn’t much to be happy about in Violet City these days, but at least I can take some temporary solace in that.
Hell, if I thought it would keep me out of the rain more often, I might get caught picking pockets all the time. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. If I start making a habit of this, it’ll be the end of me. Being a minor means that I only have to spend one night in lock-up this time around, but the mayor has a very strict policy against any kind of crime. Three strikes will still get me sent straight to the White Room. People don’t like to talk much about what goes down in there, but from what I can tell, it’s not a pleasant way to go. Luckily for me, this is only my first strike. I guess that means one of two things. I either have to get better, or go straight…and going straight isn’t on the table for me. It hasn’t been since the day that my parents died. Now isn’t really the time to think about that though, even though I really haven’t got much else to do at the moment but think. For now, I think I’ll just enjoy the ride until they kick me out in the morning. That seems like the better of the two options.
“Rise and shine, Clearborn!” a rough, grating voice shouts, shaking me out of my sleep. It’s funny, honestly, how easy it becomes to ignore unwanted sounds when you live outside. I’m awake now, but I’m not going to let that kill my high. I have a bed right now, for as long as I can stay in it at least. Sadly, that’s not for very long. “I’m not saying it again,” the man growls. This time, he sticks his hands underneath my thin mattress and pulls it out from under me, causing me to spill over onto the hard metal floor of my small, featureless steel cell.
“Ouch!” I exaggerate, “Didn’t your mom ever teach you that it helps to say please?” That probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say, but sue me. I’m already in a jail cell anyway.
“What was that, runt?” the guard spat.
“Name calling?” I sigh, “You know, there are better forms of communication. This is the kind of thing that you’d understand if you had more than a quarter of a brain”. At this point, I’m feeling maybe a little bit too smug with myself. I’ll grant that it was low hanging fruit, but nothing brightens my day quite like smart-mouthing a cop. I probably need better hobbies.
Suddenly, I’m being jerked upward by the collar of my ragged shirt. Not just upward, off of my feet entirely. For the first time, I get a look at the man who I had just taken so much pleasure in antagonizing. Not only is he ugly and livid, but he’s also just about seven feet tall and built like a fortress. When you throw a badge into that equation…let’s just say that I don’t really like the way that those numbers add up.
With as much force as he can muster, the big ape tosses me against the wall of the cell. I hit shoulder-first, right on the bone. There’s a loud cracking sound, and I have to rotate my arm just to make sure that I haven’t dislocated anything. It feels like fire dancing through my skin, radiating in pulsing waves. That’s definitely going to leave a pretty little bruise for me to look at later. At least he was thoughtful enough to give me a souvenir.
“You think you’re funny, kid?” he asks me. His voice is lower now, but it sounds more dangerous than ever.
“You know, I hadn’t really given it much thought, but you have a point. I could probably make a killing at stand-up.” As the officer lumbers towards me once more, two things run through my mind. The first is that I should probably look into doing some research on when “funny” and “smart” aren’t necessarily the same thing. The second is that I really wish I had chosen a better word than “killing” just now.
Just as I’m preparing myself to take my licks and get on with it, a voice calls over from the cell door. “That’s enough, Markum,” The second officer commands. “We’ve talked about this before. Insolent little streeters aren’t worth you losing your badge over.” This man’s voice is softer and more reserved than that of the hulking guard, but it has just as much grit to it, and it oozes authority. I know that voice.
“Oh no…” I groan under my breath. I probably should have seen this coming the second I got snatched up. “Look, just let him beat me,” I say. “It’s worth the head trauma if it’ll save me from having to listen to whatever it is you have to say to me.”
“No such luck, kid,” the second officer says. “You’re coming with me.”
“But, sir----” Markum begins to object, only to stop cold when his superior holds up his hand to silence him. “Yes sir,” he grumbles. I’m sure I hear him muttering something about this not being over as he makes his way out.
“You know that you just made whatever I have coming to me about ten times worse, right?” I ask him.
“Who’s to say that you don’t deserve it?” the officer asks, narrowing his eyes at me. His expression is far from cold, though. Looking into them doesn’t intimidate me. If anything, it fills me with an unwanted sense of shame and remorse. That’s number two on the list of things that I can’t stand about my Uncle Alec, those damned eyes. It’s like he’s looking straight down into your soul. “What am I going to do with you, Aiden?” he demands. “If you want to live on the streets, then that’s one thing. I can’t stop you. I will not tolerate my own nephew spending a night in jail, though.” He’s not even yelling. It’s worse when he doesn’t yell.
“You’re not going to tolerate it, huh?” I ask, looking away from him. My arms are folded across my chest. I need something between my uncle and I. His arms are planted right on his hips. He’s not making it easy. “And what are you going to do about it Alec? Are you going to sell me out? Betray me, maybe? You already did that when you joined up with the same bastards who killed my parents, not even a year after we buried them. You want to come in here and act like we’re family? You don’t know what the word means.” That’s number one on the list of things that I can’t stand about him…
“Aiden, you don’t―” my uncle begins.
“No, Alec,” I say, cutting him off. “I do get it. You needed a stipend, and that was more important to you than your pride, or even your sister. I’m not you, though. In fact, If I play my cards right, I’m never going to be anything like you. So just drop it, okay?”
He says nothing. The look in his eyes softens, but the rest of him remains stoic and silent. I wish that he would just get angry. If he’d get angry, at least then I’d now that maybe I’m wrong about him. He doesn’t, though. Instead he just moves out of the way of the cell door, and motions for me to leave. “Do you know the way out?” He asks me.
I just walk past him without answering, and I don’t take a second glance backwards. Lucky for me, I do know my way out. I don’t want to spend any more time in the same building as Alec Rosewater than I absolutely have to.
As I walk out onto the streets of Violet City, I stretch my arms out above my head. My body is still creaky from sleep, not to mention the fact that my right shoulder is insanely sore from being thrown against a metal wall. Although, there isn’t really much else to be thrown up against in this town, I suppose. I take a look around to reacquaint myself with the streets that I call my home. I’ve only been gone for less than a day, but the buildings are all different than I remember them being. I guess that that would probably be unnerving to anyone from one of the other Cities, but it’s just how it is here. Everything is made of shifting, changing metal that seems to act entirely of its own accord. That’s not the case though.
The government is in control of all the metal here. They say, “jump,” the metal says, “who do you want me to put out of a job next on the way down?” That’s not even an exaggeration. As time has moved forward, those in charge have found more and more ways to use the shifting metals of Violet City to make the lives of its citizens more “convenient.” In reality, this has just led to a severe shortage of available jobs. The result is that you’re either born rich, you work for them, or you figure out how to live by any means necessary. I chose the third.
Everyone has their own ideas as to why the government has decided to leave the exteriors of all the buildings in a state of constant flux. Mine is actually pretty simple. They want to show us that they control our lives. They want us to know that, should they make the call, riches can turn to rubble in a matter of minutes. That’s why some days all the buildings in town will look regal, and elegant, and some days, they’ll all look like they’ve been through hell. This is one of those days.
Today, the buildings look boxy, and beaten, or at least as beaten as something can look when its surface never stops moving. Today is one of the reminders. I don’t live in any of these buildings though, so I don’t pay them any mind. Instead, I look down at the streets. For a moment, I allow myself to become entranced by the dim purple lights pulsing between the metal bricks, and then I’m on my way. The streets are the one of the few things in this town that aren’t constantly changing. That’s why I trust them.
Everything is still slick from last night’s storm. Rain is a pain in the ass on its own, but it’s even worse when all the floors are made of metal. Me, though? I’ve been living out here for more than five years, now. That’s more than enough time to learn how to get around without slipping all over the place. At least, it is as long as no one walks up from behind you and scares the lights out of you.
“Aiden Clearborn, do you have any idea how worried I was about you?” I female voice yells. I’m so caught off guard that I slip and fall right on my tailbone. It looks like we’re just going to have to add that one onto today’s tally.
As I rub my aching back side, I turn around to find Becca Cross standing a couple feet behind me. Her arms are folded, and she has a look on her face that tells me that I’d better watch what I say next if I plan on standing up again anytime soon. Normally, Becca is my best and only friend in the world. Right now, I’d rather walk right back into that prison cell and call Officer Markum’s mother a fat troll straight to his face. “Jeez, Bec. I’m already banged up as it is. Was that really necessary?”
“Was it necessary?” She asks me. So much for me trying not to say the wrong thing to her, I guess. Her jade eyes are now glowing so fiercely that it’s making her deep orange hair look as though it’s ablaze. I hunker down, and close my eyes tight, preparing for the worst. Instead, she just lets out a deep groan. “Come on,” she says. “Get up. Let’s get out of here before they decide to take you in for something else.”
I stand up and listen to her. I may not always know when to keep my mouth shut, but this is definitely one of those times. As we walk silently through the slick, gleaming back alleys of the city, I try my best not to look at Becca. I know that she’s going to let loose on me as soon as we get where we’re going. Otherwise, she would have said something by now. I don’t have any inclination whatsoever to rush her.
I know how mad she must be at me. The truth is that I’d be just as mad at her if she’d been caught. I met Becca just a few days after leaving my uncle’s house. That was before I knew how to take care of myself out here, but she had already been at it for quite some time. Both of us had lost our parents during The Last Protest. The difference between the two of us was that she had had nowhere to go afterward. By the time we met for the first time, she had already been out on the streets for seven months. When she found me, cold and starving, she took pity and fed me. After that, she taught me everything she had learned about how to survive. If it wasn’t for Becca, I’d probably be dead already. The truth though, is that I’d like to think that both of us owe each other our lives several times over by now. As far as I’m concerned, Becca Cross is the last family I have left.
It was almost a half-hour before we arrived at the Grand Golden Bridge. As we make our approach, I look up at it, cherishing my last precious moments of silence before having my head bitten off. It’s a huge, garish structure that’s used primarily as a crossing for the cart trains, which are one of the few good things that the government has decided to do with the metal. They make it easier for people to traverse this giant monster of a city. Unfortunately, you need money to ride the cart trains, and that is something the Becca and I just don’t have, so we’re typically stuck walking everywhere.
Before the trains though, practicality never really had much to do with why the bridge had been erected. History says that, when it was first made, it was meant to be a symbol of prosperity, and the promise of wealth. Now, the homeless live beneath it. You can’t get much more symbolic than that.
As we pass beneath the shadow of the imposing bridge, I tense up and prepare myself. “Alright,” I say, “go ahead and let me have it.”
“I’m not going to yell at you, Aiden,” Becca sighs.
“Wait, you’re not going to…what? No, that doesn’t make any sense. You not sick, are you? Please tell me that you haven’t got mercury fever.” I cover my mouth and nose with my shirt, and place my free hand on her forehead to check her temperature.
“Will you stop that?” she blusters. “I’m not sick!”
“Phew, okay, good,” I say. “You threw me for a loop there. I’m not used to you not yelling at me. Can you blame me if I was a little concerned?”
“Well, maybe I wouldn’t have to yell at you so much if you weren’t always going off and doing such stupid things!” she shouts.
“And, here we go,” I say. I really shouldn’t be egging her on, but I care too much about her to let her hold it all in. If there’s one thing that I want even less than to be shouted at, it’s to see Becca get sick for real. If I have to jump on a proverbial knife every so often to keep that from happening, then that’s a price that I’m more than willing to pay.
“This is exactly what I’m talking about!” Becca’s pale skin is starting to turn red now. Mission accomplished. “Everything is always a joke to you, Aiden! You don’t take anything seriously, and it’s going to get you killed one of these days! Do you have any idea how scared I was when you didn’t show up back at the bridge last night?”
“Becca, I’m fine,” I swear. “I mean, that guard roughed me up a little bit, but it was like a kiss on the cheek compared to some of the stuff we’ve been through out here. I’m fine, I promise.”
“And how was I supposed to know that?” she asks me.
The question hits me harder than Markum could if he was wearing brass knuckles. I don’t know how to answer her.
“That didn’t even cross your mind, did it?” she pushes on. “Tell me, how would you feel if I just didn’t show up one night?”
“I―I…” I know exactly how I would feel, but I can’t find the words. Maybe there are no words. Nothing that I say at this moment could possibly tell her how worried I would be. All at once, I understand what I’ve just put her through.
“You’re so stupid sometimes,” she says. Tears are now running down her cheeks, cutting a trail down the layer of grime that’s accumulated over her skin.
“Hey…” I say, taking a tentative step forward.
“What?” she snaps at me, now wiping the tears from her face. I step back for a moment, but then return to my course. I travel the rest of the way to her in one stride, and I wrap my arms around her. As I feel her body trembling in my embrace, those small tremors fill me with more guilt than even Alec’s unnatural stare could ever instill in me.
“I’ll be more careful,” I tell her. I promise, okay? I’ll be more careful.”
“You’d better be,” she says into my chest through a heaving sob. I can’t help but let a tiny smirk work its way onto my face. Even when she’s a complete and total mess, she still somehow manages to find it in her to boss me around.