Chapter 2: Claws in the Air
2. Claws in the Air
Somewhere down below, a woman named Anya sang a song her foster parents had once sung to her in the middle of the night while their home burned to the ground. They had stood in front of the dilapidated rows of sharply cut, three stories high buildings, broken and splintered by misguided abuse. Her parents knew no one was coming to put it out, but they couldn’t help but watch whatever small amount of possessions they owned go up in flame. A small gathering of people formed behind them, being careful not to get too close. The Mother crouched to stroke her crying daughter’s fine hair, and sung softly into her ear, trying to swallow sobs of her own. Though these weren’t Anya’s biological parents, they would always be her real ones, since she knew no other. But these parents could only oblige to the cruel reality of poverty, and after the fire, had to start all over again. The Father found a job in construction, but had to live on site so he and his men could work their fourteen-hour days in the most productive manner possible. About halfway through the job The Father fell from an undisclosed height and onto his head. He was paralyzed from the waist down, and was left with a crippling and unstable mind.
Since they had no money to pay for the care he needed, he ended up in The Fallen; a government funded institution where the like-minded, haphazardly thrown together, patients waited for the end of their days in safe confinement, away from the general public. The Mother, so stricken with grief, fell into an unstable relationship with drugs. Particularly the kinds that turn you on (way on), and off (way off). The weeks she spent in bed, marinating in her own filth, made it blaringly obvious to Anya that unless she was to do something drastic, life itself would cease to be feasible. She grew to hate the sight of The Mother. Listening to her through the walls, crying out to the dark, watching the stench seep through the thin spaces dividing them; watching her eyes roll into the back of her head after a good hit. All this made Anya hate. She could only see a shell, nothing more.
So one day, without saying goodbye, while The Mother was talking to herself about a horse with no legs, Anya walked out the front door with a change of clothes, and a collection of coins in her front pocket she had counted earlier in the day while hiding in the bathroom stall at school.
It would be a lie to say that Anya never thought about The Parents, no matter how much she told herself she didn’t care about them one goddamn bit. During some nights when it was raining, and her boots had been soaked for who knew how many days, while she was hunkered down under an overhang only just barely covering her torso and thighs, would she remember the days before their apartment burned down; when they would sit in front of a painting of the desert, and tell each other their dreams of the previous night. But now her inadequate amounts of sleep, and her paltry day-to-day life seemed to leave little, if any, room for dreaming. But every once in awhile, when she was feeling really good, the kind of good that seems to dwindle as you age, like after school when there was nothing left to do but nothing, would she convince herself that she was going to go to The Fallen and see The Father. But after she would finish singing, and the feeling of good would start to dwindle, she would realize she had nothing to say to him—wouldn’t know what to say to him. She probably wouldn’t even able to bare the sight of him for longer than a few seconds before having to turn away and pretend like she was trying to hide herself from crying, when in fact she was hiding her expression of disgust and boredom. The Father never hurt her, he never even raised his voice at her, but she could never forgive him for selfishly running off to work and get drunk with a bunch of sloppy men, while she and The Mother fell sicker and sicker until there was nothing left of a family. It was irrational, and she knew every angle of irrationality that went along with it. But even at age 21, singing in the wrong key, still carrying those same change of clothes, still the same set of coins she carried out of her house five years prior, she held onto the same grudge, exactly half the reason why she had left home in the first place.
Anya adapted quickly to life on the street. She learned to take advantage of a place where people threw out more than they consumed, and assumed a mentally unstable persona she could in an instant shut on or off. She found others would completely change the second she got close enough to where they could see it in her eyes. It was the quiet ones she learned to stay away from. The hardest part to get used to wasn’t sleeping outside, not always having to struggle for your next meal, or trying to avoid being beaten, or raped, it was hygiene. For a while she embraced the dirt, and the grime. But there came a point when she couldn’t take it any longer. At a couple of points in the past, Anya had the opportunity of applying and getting interviewed for a job, but was too self conscious of her body odor to allow herself to walk into the office and submit the poor whomever handing out applications, to its stench. The worst part was that she couldn’t even smell it herself, she only knew it to exist. It was like the condition she heard happened to smokers when after smoking everyday for years, they would be unable to smell the smoke encompassing their clothing, furniture, tar-stained walls, burned nostril hair, and hands. Or the smell of a room she was used to. A smell so unique and unable to be described that it becomes part of the general semblance of the very space. The only time Anya could really smell herself was when she would get wet. It takes a minimum of three days for the smell to go away enough to where she felt comfortable going out in public again. No matter how many lemon or orange peels she rubbed across every inch of her clothing, the smell of musty wet would not subside. Only time could wash it away. Of course she could submit herself to that, but the easier solution was to find a new change of clothes.
And this is just what she was about to do, as she sang The Mother’s song, walking down the street to a little spot she had scoped for the past two nights.
Anya was alone even though her friend Oona had begged her from the moment they had woken up to let her tag along. Anya learned that just like she, Oona was only a child when she ran away. They immediately attached to one another. Physically, and metaphysically. But, like the motherly figure Anya had assumed in their tightly bound relationship, she wouldn’t allow responsibility for putting Oona in any dangerous situations, sternly restraining herself from allowing Oona to come along.
“But Anya I want to help. I need new clothes too,” Oona had said as they laid still in their tuft of grass.
“I’ll grab you some myself.”
“You can’t stop me from coming!”
Anya turned over.
Oona threw the covers off and stormed over to a cloud of bushes. When she came back from finding a spot to pee, Anya was gone.
Donovan St. was in a neighborhood one could not categorize as rich or poor, but would be forced to call progressive. Progressive in relation to what? Anya wasn’t sure. She had learned of it from hanging close to veterans of the street, leaning on her elbows, head cocked:
‘Haden’t ye heard tha’ eld spot ep on thea heil wiph all dem yeng keds?’
’Ey. Dem keeds ‘av too maech oufe ah gud theng.’
‘Nehss spot tah greb some noo splecs.’
And so it went on.
The spot in question now was below one of the largest apartment buildings in the area.
She was deep in the middle of the last line when she came to the building residing neatly between two storefronts—both clothing stores.
The actual storefronts to these stores were not on ground level, of course, but started instead 100 stories up, along with everything else. But all the trash flowed through the middle of the two buildings, and right down to their shared, ground floor.
A man in rags, with feet covered in a fungus that looked like green moss, hobbled across the road, tensing his body with every step. Anya took a moment to watch him disappeared between two shadowed trunks.
A chain link fence topped with barbed wire, about ten feet high, was the first of her obstacles. Her fingers, tipped with dirt, grabbed a small sheet she was using as a shawl, and in one swift lunge, threw the sheet over to dampen the pincer coil. It was a good sign seeing barbed wire, less likely to be any invisible security—at least that’s what she liked to tell herself. The invisible stuff is what you didn’t want to come across, for obvious reasons. It wasn’t actually barbed wire at all, but a direct line of current, that would give anyone one hell of a shock, knock them off the fence, and right back onto their ass. The moon made the barbed wire shine white before the cloth draped over, now an open door leading to a dark hall. Anya took one look to the left, and then once to the right before starting to climb. The snags in the metal fence cut small holes where they found space between the rows of calluses. She had always loved the smell of metal, and couldn’t help but stop for a moment and indulge in the rubbed-off aroma on her own hands. Her pointed boots made perfect triangles aiming at a rat lackadaisically crawling along, dragging behind it another lifeless rat, whose tail had become twisted and knotted around the other’s.
Though she knew she had to be quick about it, she swayed for a second, straddling the top of the fence, looking down at the sidewalk. Her gargoyle post didn’t last very long. At the end of the block, two people rounded the corner whom she didn’t know at all what they looked like since she was already down the other side, and her blanket wrapped neatly back around her head as she stayed to the shadows.
There were no hanging bulbs in the alley. Yet still a green coat. A focal point of an unnatural looking green. At some point in the far past, the city had tried their hands at genetically modifying arabidopsis plants (at least that’s where they started) by trying to allow the pea plant to incorporate the genes to produce the luciferase enzyme so its foliage would bioluminesce. The city’s scientists were eventually able to incorporate this modification into actual trees to line the streets so streetlights had become altogether obsolete. It was a free source of energy with no negative byproducts or need to further produce energy waste. The low-energy aura erupted in a silent cascade of neon, falling delicately with its ashen luminescent glow. It made Anya’s hands look sickly, like a veiny witch who’d mixed one too many potions with their bare hands.
This all had taken her by surprise since the trees had almost been scrapped altogether after the commissioner had stated that the trees “did not provide enough light for the citizens of this city, to go about their lives in a safe and effective manner.” Can you believe that shit? The real reason the city needed these trees gone was that those in charge had lost control of a piece of infrastructure.
So instead, they were relocated to the parks in the sky known as the weathergardens. Anya had only heard stories about the weathergardens, never seen one herself. Though during days when there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, she could swear that the little black dot in the sky had to be one. The only trees left alone were those lucky enough to have germinated in an area off the main streets, and out of the observant eye of the clean up crews.
Anya’s scampering feet hardly left the ground as she glided over to the apartment building’s wall. Her body tried mimicking the emotion of those leaves. She picked up a solid plank of wood resting tirelessly on its browned and rotten edge. It compressed beneath the small amount of pressure from her fingers, giving way to its soggy insides. She moved the piece of wood between her legs and slid it along the angle of the floor and building, leaving behind a foul smelling brown liquid left dripping down the insides of her calfs. The plank slid over on itself, making only dampened slunks as it hit the floor and walls. All of a sudden, about 20 feet from where she was standing, the piece of wood disappeared, falling through the cemented ground.
Basement doors were usually cloaked. She needed to be careful. Timidly she walked over to where the piece of wood had fallen. With her toe outstretched in front of her body, Anya moved forward until it slid over nothing and wedged down, just below the hologram of cement. It was a strange feeling to move through something she knew to be solid and impenetrable. She couldn’t relate it to anything else in the world. The way in which it works is far beyond anything Anya could comprehend, but she knew its commercial production was, for the most part, discontinued, in a kind of, quarantined way. It’s easy to imagine how it quickly turns into a catastrophe when no one knows where anything is. Some political group found a way to disguise themselves as an overseas buyer in Fahnstock for a secret police force in The Federal Republic of the Americas, and was able to buy up a whole boatload. As the injury reports began coming in, an abrupt search by law enforcement, with five-foot long poles held out in front of their bodies, was conducted across the city. They were in a state of emergency in a matter of minutes. People were afraid to step, or go about their daily lives out of fear they might come across an opening in the floor leading 100 stories down an elevator shaft. Or bump into a robot who had figured out how to incorporate the devices into their own networking.
Anya sat on the floor with her legs now hidden below the cement, swinging them about to try and find any kind of footing. The edge of a metal step hit her big toe and she lowered the upper half of her body further into the cement. She puffed out her cheeks like she was about to dive into the ocean, stood on the step with only the upper half of her body exposed to the green light, and began walking down the set of stairs. When she reached the crux of where her neck was cut in half by the cement she took another deep breath, ducked below with her eyes shut so as not to become infuriatingly disoriented, and opened them again to find herself in the dim orange glow of the boiler room.
A robot sat in front of a panel of blinking lights. Anya froze. A sheet of metal with one noticeable switch read in big letters, ‘ON-OFF’. It was apparent this robot had only one job: To turn this machine either on, or off. Sitting there day in, and day out, waiting for the command to come in over their radio transmitter, transmitted from headquarters 10 stories above, in the basement floor of the building she had just infiltrated.
The space between here and the last basement floor was usually designated to only one security guard who sat in front of a little screen that bobbed up and down in the air, while they sat back and ate junk food until they fell asleep. Although Anya wasn’t afraid of getting caught, it was still in her interest to stay as quiet as possible, and to find the trash shoot as quickly as she could, just in case.
The floor for trash was usually flush with the ground, which meant she was in need of a staircase leading up. A careful tiptoe around the robot was all she needed to find the only other door leading out, and hopefully up. She moved around the inanimate robot. It looked as if its own feelings of discontent were never programmed into its hardware. The bot was hunched over in a tired gesture it would never know as such. It radiated a kind of tangible barrier between Anya and it. She could have sworn she saw its shoulders rise from a slight breath, but clung back to the causal reality of the situation before proceeding to the door. Had she been more observant of her surroundings she would have seen three more bots, all hunched over all in the same dramatic posture.
She walked through the dark and unsavory room.
The robots hung back in the dark, just out of reach from the orange glow of upturned light, seeming only to be there for aesthetic purposes, rather than for aiding one in seeing better.
Anya looked back at where she had stepped down and realized the dryness of the floor that could only be accompanied with a room yielding no opening to the outside world. She wondered how the cloaked doorway could allow a body to pass through, yet not a single drop of rain. She figured it had to do with velocity of entrance, since that was the only difference she could admittedly find between a human, and a drop of rain; especially now that she understood—as she opened the second door into the stairwell—that most human motion, while in some form of contemplation or another, moved at a much slower pace than that of an unconscious, earthen entity.
Her renegade stance left her immobile, as the door slowly clocked back into place behind. The sedentary lights whizzed their halogen energy out into the stark and unwelcoming stairwell. She took to holding the bottom railing below the first step so to peer up and into the repetitive and verbose shaft of stairs hanging in the air without intention. She could see no end in sight, and could hear no click or clack of feet meandering the floors above. She took to them two at a time, careful not to make more of a sound then the deadened thud of her organs settling. It used to be that after every two sets of stairs a door would emerge to lead the climber onto a new floor. But now these doors were paved over with a different type of cement than used in the building’s original construction; outlining the once-was portals.
Anya had once read about how this weird form of acrophilia was deeply ingrained into the social status of the city from a book published by a man named Mark, who liked to act as though he knew a lot about everything. Apparently this whole fixation was nothing new. In fact, it has been around ever since the invention of the elevator. During the primary construction of early cities, the ground floor was reserved for the wealthy, while the higher floors were kept vacant for those with less. Before elevators, the pleasures of not needing to walk up any stairs to reach one’s apartment ran ground level apartments to a much higher price. But, after the invention of the elevator, this all changed. The idea was patented under the genius angle of taking people away from the dirty streets, and into the clean air. This took hold fast as skyscrapers became larger in scale and scope. Penthouse suits would relocate to the top floors of buildings, rather than down where there is now a butcher’s shop. And while some top-secret meetings took place underground, most of the meetings you will never hear about reside on the top floors of these massive skyscrapers, rising above the clouds. Now it is something even more pronounced. With no one even wanting to be seen on the first one-hundred floors of a building, properties were forced to close and build on top of the ones that already existed, higher and higher, until we were forced to stop.
Anya walked by the unsettling concrete cenotaphs of the past, and knocked on each one lightly with her knuckle to listen for the echoes in the empty spaces behind. At the eighth one of these doors an ancient sign stated that the contents behind was for “verifiable employees only” and “all others will be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law”: The door pushed easily open.
In the doorway she froze, looking out into a bustling room of claws, and mammoth metal boxes, rusted and weathered by years of steam pouring out from the gaps between their sheets of reinforced steel. The well-oiled joints moved fluidly across each other’s path as they grasped at mounds of debris falling from long, narrow shoots above. It was eerie how silently the machines worked, and how only a slight hum from the lights around the room, and the rushing of air from their swift oscillations, was all that could be heard. The ceiling rose 20 feet up to where dense cobwebs made home of the darkest corners, littered with mats of synthetic monotonic pastorals. Anya couldn’t help but stare up and think of how those overgrown spiders had gotten in in the first place.
A crane swung in front of her periphery, blinding her to the grotesque spider-house for a split second—long enough to allow her to fall back into her plan. It was not so much of a plan as it was a going through the motions of something she had done many times before, countless times in fact, just in different places. Anya had never hit the same place more than a couple times, since she knew the amount of garbage inputted and outputted was calculated by increasingly-consist machines, that could weigh the amount of content, and subtract the suggested amount of lost debris in the reprocessing process… Eventually someone would be bound to catch on is all. The computers doing the calculating were only able to do so if the garbage was sorted into a variety of different categories.
Believe it or not, there were, in fact, countless amounts of studies on how much debris from reprocessing garbage was lost on average to wind, for example, or how much was transformed into other material from the intense heat or pressure from the processing process, only to consequently be wrongly sorted and added into a pile of materials unlike it. Only the elite manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies undertook these studies to try and find strategies on how to hide the amount of debt they had accumulated over the years by unintentionally throwing away resources they could have used to make more of their product.
From the belt loop of Anya’s now permanently wet waist, she wielded a small pole, no longer than 3 inches in length, that with a quick flick of her wrist, extended, reaching 6 feet in front. She shuffled slowly up to the first bin of trash. It looked like a whole building in itself; a primitive monument from a peoples who lived before. Just as a claw—dedicated to transporting debris from a higher main container to this one—had left to go grab more garbage. She forced the long pole over the top lip of the bin. Pressing the second button on the handle released a thin metal claw that tensed and contracted as it came in contact with something other than air, all before seamlessly retracting back to where it started. All this can happen in less than 4 seconds.
A matted mass of tautly bound, rubber coated wires, hung at the end of the pole. Must be an electrical bin. She pressed the release lever, leaving a pile of cable on the ground, and moved on to the next bin before the claw had time to return.
It was only after the fifth try—and elegant segments of balletic maneuvering—when she finally hooked a pair of tattered socks…She had found the clothes bin.
It quickly became as automatic and repetitive as the claws moving through the air above her: Reaching up with the pole over the top of the bin while the claw was off retrieving more garbage; grabbing more of the sorted materials; pulling up articles of clothing to either be dropped back into the bin, or to retract the pole and drop them at her feet so she could more closely inspect and see if they could be salvaged—i.e. properly washed, fitted, and patched—for her or Oona.
Anya accumulated a pile of six mismatched socks, without holes, five shirts—one small white tank top, one small long sleeve with checkered material layered in lattice, one sweater with an image of wildflower stitched to the bottom rising up and around the shoulders, one white short sleeve shirt bearing the words “One makes pain, two makes a family/party” printed in bold, capital letters, and one larger waffle shirt perfect to sleep in. She also found a pair of pants with only a few small holes, but would need tailor them herself if they were to fit either of them. A wool hat with a pom pom dangling to the side, two mismatched gloves with the fingertips cut off, and a pair of black sunglasses only slightly bent at the bridge. What Anya was really hoping for was a matching pair of shoes, because truthfully, wet shoes were the absolute hardest to handle. She imagined a pair could be tied together by the laces. The ones she wore now were leather, and for all intensive purposes, perfect for living how she needed to. Except for when they got wet. When this happened they would: 1—Emanate a disgusting combination of rotten cheese and mold smell, and 2—Would be wet for a minimum of twelve days. But really, who throws away shoes with the laces tied together?
Just as she felt a tickle of hope (that of course meant it never coming true, since these types of things happen only when least expected) a blinking red light caught her eye. She wasn’t sure how long ago it had started, but was sure she knew exactly what it meant. The internal computers had figured out the output on one of the claws was smaller than the input of the similar materials in the larger bin hanging precariously high near the top ceiling.
It was time for her to go, like now
The rod retracted back to its compact size. She stuffed it into the back of her pants where she had sewn a small pocket. Her eyes never left the blinking light. It seemed as though a siren should have accompanied it. Anya threw her baggy sweater off her shoulders and up and over the top of her head to fashion a satchel. She grabbed up the clothing she had set aside by her feet, stuffed them into the pouch made from the thick sweater, swung it over her left shoulder, and stampeded out of there. The claws still moved silently. No different than when she arrived.
She didn’t bother closing the door on her way out because she knew in a few moments it would close and lock all on its own. Only halfway down the first flight of stairs was when it closed with such a force that it was hard listening to anything quieter remaining. Cringing at its power she took three stairs at a time, watching the numbers of the floors decrease in value. Her feet made the sounds of squeezing a wet, deflated balloon.
Inside the control room all was the same, save the same small, flashing red light, completely invisible in the long shadows cast in the orange-glazed room during the dark portion of its cycle. Anya had a horrible image of the slouched robots beginning to move all at once, slowly waking from whatever ‘robotic sleep’ can be categorized as. But nothing changed. Just the coming and going of her body’s red outline. She assumed the sleeping security guard had woken up from its mid-shift nap by now, and was hurtling down on a tiny security car, topped with flashing yellow lights. Anya knew there was really only so much a security guard could do when faced with an intruder, besides scare them into never returning—or if they were lucky, detain the criminal until the proper authorities could be called to the scene of the crime. That would really give ’em a shot in the pants!
Anya’s disembodied head poked through the cloaked cement floor, half green, half black. Something crawled along the cuff of her pant-leg, brushing the hairs on her ankle (Elbows in! Chest up!), kicking at the bottom of her one leg. A hum from behind the fence increased from barren static, out of sight—more likely coming from above…(!) She didn’t dare look up since she knew exactly what she was going to see. From the fence she fled towards the tree, already looming over her like smoke.
She evolved into one with the green fluorescence, and could see it, right on the tips of her eyelashes.
A running start from 10 feet away allowed her enough momentum to reach a depressed knot in its trunk. Grasping for the first set of thick branches, her toes curled, and her navel shone. The bark tingled beneath her hands as her fingers pressed deeply into the cribriform wood. She figured she must be well enough hidden, perched like a fiend waiting to drop down on an unsuspecting street-couple. A bright yellow light fled from the top of the tree, enclosing the circumference of the trunk. Anya scrambled to tie the satchel of clothing around her neck. She needed to use both her hands to climb. Though the light was pointed towards her, there was only a small possibility the guard was able to see her in the tree’s labyrinth of branches. The subtle hum from the Powerwelt 380V Tri-R1240LC-E Transporter fell directly behind Anya’s back before she made it up to the third set of branches.
“We must insist that you stop at once!” the mechanically tired voice sounded from behind their intercom.
Anya could feel the displacement of air push into her back as the Powerwelt 380V Tri-R1240LC-E Transporter tried maneuvering closer into the green aura so they could reach out and grab the interloper before she could make it over the fence (and make their job more of a buttsore).
The sweater tightened around her neck, snagged on a branch. She tried pulling herself up anyway, using the last of her remaining strength to reach the final set of branches. Holding on with one hand, the other dangled behind her back. She forced the sweater loose and sent a cluster of glowing leaves down past the fairly incapacitated silhouette of the guard’s vehicle and rather large body, spilling over its sides. The pressure on her thyroid cartilage—that she always thought stuck out a bit too much from her larynx—eased up, and she reached the fence. Her fingers wrapped around the coarse metal with one arm grabbing at her shoulder’s height, and the other above her head. Down at her feet, part of the trunk began to grow into and around the links of the fence like mud slowly swallowing up whole villages. Anya had once read of a rainstorm that plagued a small mountain village. It rained for 14 days, washing away all their crops (back when people still farmed their own food), saturating the ground under the mountain towering over them. Needless to say the earth gave way and swallowed the entire village whole, goats and all.
The guard, now on the other side of the tree, was frantically trying to figure out a way to find where Anya had disappeared. Their program was on, and it was about to get to the best part.
“We know you’re in there,” Anya heard, now with one leg dangling over the fence and the other about to swing over to meet it.
She enjoyed how they had said we, like there was more than one person who really gave a fuck what was going on here. As she chuckled to herself, she climbed down the backside of the fence, looking up to see if the guard would expend the energy to try and give chase. She jumped the last six feet and was off, leaping over puddles of murky water filled with oil spills, and strange deposits of white crystalline byproducts forming fairly beautiful patterns of toxic structures that may one day look more like a village than it did now.
A separate noise from the Powerwelt 380V Tri-R1240LC-E Transporter occurred from behind, above, and in front of where she ran. A system of security protocols snapped into existence just a few seconds too late.
She ran out of the alley and smelled smoke. The satchel came over her shoulder and to the ground. Part of the sweater had caught fire from the invisible fence that must have turned on the second she had jumped off the fence. Without thinking twice she jammed it into a small pool of brown water, getting wet whatever articles of clothing lay on that particular side of the satchel. She let out a deep sigh, picked up a rock, and threw it down the alley with a yell of frustration, only to watch it break into small particles of dust as it passed by the threshold of the invisible fence.
Anya ran off through the wet streets, keeping to the shadows for a while until she knew no one else was coming; listening for the sounds of the Powerwelt 380V Tri-R1240LC-E Transporter slowly fading in decibels, as the guard riding on its back still called out for anyone who is in this tree to come out slowly with their hands in the air…