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“What does the ocean look like, Adam?” asked Emma.
“Big,” answered Adam. “Wet. Full of fish.”
“I know that,” Emma replied.
They were sitting on the Platform; well, Adam was sitting, and Emma was standing. She was too excited to sit down.
Adam was excited too, Emma was sure, but it never showed. He sat at the edge of the Platform, dangling his legs off, swinging his feet. Emma always told him not to do that, but like most things Emma told him to do, he ignored the request.
“Well, then, you already know what the ocean looks like,” Adam said, in that even, calm tone that infuriated Emma. “You didn’t need to ask me.”
Emma sighed. “I know what it’s supposed to look like. I just can’t picture it.”
Adam shrugged. “It’s hard to describe.”
Before coming to the city, Adam used to live by the sea. He wouldn’t tell Emma why he left. Emma didn’t think that anyone in his right mind would leave the sea. It sounded like the most beautiful thing in the world.
Emma was born in the city and had never left. All she knew were the shouts and cries of people all day and all night, the houses stacked one on top of the other like vertebrae, the cackling monkeys that scaled the wires and the roofs, the sweet-smoky air that coated your lungs and made you cough.
Tag came out onto the Platform. “What are you guys doing out here?” she asked them.
Adam turned around. “Nothing,” Emma said.
“Well, if you’re done doing nothing, the vendors are all set up in the Alley,” Tag said, pushing back the cloth hanging from the doorframe and going inside.
Emma grinned. “Meet you down there,” she said to Adam. She grabbed her wicker basket, hung it over her shoulder, and leapt from the Platform.
Her fingers found a cable and she swung from it, propelling herself to another cable and landing on another platform. She jumped off that one too, swinging from cable to roof to platform like a monkey. Finally she swung herself to the ground. Her bare feet hit the warm pavement.
Emma could smell the vendors even before she could see them: the savoury smell of roasting meat, the heady aroma of caramel and sugar, the scents of cinnamon and pepper. She ducked under some clothes strung between windows, pushed back some hanging wires and squeezed through a group of watchmen into the Alley.
On either side of Emma rose towering buildings; each building consisted of twenty or so houses stacked on top of each other. The place that Emma lived was near the top of her building. She wished she were at the very top, so she could sit up on the roof instead of just on the Platform. She still went on the roof; it just wasn’t her roof.
Like any kid born and raised in the city, Emma wasn’t just unafraid of heights; she revelled in them. She liked nothing better than swinging around the city by the cables; the cables used to be for electricity, but that was a luxury no one could afford anymore. Now they were just dead things, sturdy and safe to dangle off of. Emma was never scared of losing her grip and falling twenty stories to the ground underneath; her hands were far too sure, her grip far too strong.
Adam wasn’t nearly as confident about heights. He hadn’t been born in the city – he’d come here when he was twelve. Since then, he’d grown accustomed to always being high up, but he still wouldn’t swing down from the cables like Emma did.
She saw Adam now, pushing through the small crowd toward her. “Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” said Emma. “How was that? Walking down eighteen flights of stairs? How are your legs?”
Adam rolled his eyes, punched her in the shoulder.
“Bread for sale! Fresh bread, hot from the oven!” The call made them both turn. Nearby, a vendor was displaying a table filled with steaming loaves of bread. The yeasty scent filled Emma’s nose. She went over to the vendor and asked him how much a loaf would cost her. He replied that each loaf was three bronzes, but they bartered for a while till Emma brought the price down to two bronzes and a copper. She bought two loaves. The vendor wrapped the loaves in crinkly brown paper and handed them to her. Emma tucked the bread carefully into her wicker basket. It would stay warm in there, at least for a little while.
She met up with Adam, who had gotten a deal on yellow cheese and garlic. “That vendor under the window – he has chocolate.” Adam pointed, and Emma saw.
“Chocolate! I haven’t had chocolate in years!”
“Neither have I,” Adam said. “You wanna go try and get our hands on some?”
Emma frowned. “It’s really illegal, Adam. We can’t risk having anything that illegal. If they catch us with some –”
“Don’t be stupid,” said Adam, laughing. “You’re always the one that says I’m too careful, that I’ve gotta just go for it.”
“I know,” Emma said, “but still…”
“Well,” said Adam, “I’m going to go and get me some chocolate. You don’t have to have any.”
Emma sighed. “Well, if you’re going to get chocolate, I’m going with you. But if we get caught, it’s your fault.”
Adam shrugged and started towards the vendor. Emma darted up beside him. There weren’t very many people around the chocolate vendor, though many turned a wary glance to him as they passed. The vendor himself was nondescript, with dark hair and dark clothes and eyes that didn’t meet anyone else’s. He seemed to want to blend in – a wise move for someone selling a thing like chocolate.
Adam and Emma approached him. He looked up and inspected them.
“Hello,” he said, his voice low and melodic. “What can I get for you kids today?”
Emma looked at his table. All she could see was a spread of fresh fruit; oranges, lemons, pears, blueberries. Where was the chocolate?
Adam cleared his throat. “I hear that you’re selling chocolate,” he said, his voice steady, not betraying any sort of fear – but Emma could see his hands shaking. He stuffed them into his pockets.
The man nodded. “Be sure to keep your voice down, boy. You never know what kind of eyes are watching.”
Instinctively, Emma turned, did a quick once-around. But there was no sign of any Silvermen. They didn’t usually patrol this side of town. She and everyone else in the Alley were safe.
Adam nodded. “Of course.”
The man sorted through some crates underneath his table. He took out a paper box and opened the lid. “Take a good look,” he said. “I have this stuff, milk chocolate, all the way to 99% dark. That s***’s bitter as h*ll but it’s good, believe me.”
The box contained large blocks of chocolate in varying shades, from the creamy brown milk chocolate to the 99%, which was nearly black. Emma’s mouth watered as the smell of the chocolate drifted on the breeze. “What would you recommend?” Adam asked.
The vendor thought. “The 60% dark is probably my favourite. It’s rich, but not too bitter.”
“How much?” asked Adam.
The vendor shut the box and looked at them. “The cheapest chocolate – the milk stuff – is gonna cost you about fifteen bronzes.”
Emma gaped at him. “How much does that get us?” Adam asked.
The vendor picked up a block about the size of his hand.
“Fifteen bronzes for that scrap?” Emma cried. “I could get five loaves of bread for one piece of your chocolate!”
Adam tugged on her wrist. “Shut up,” he whispered in her ear, his breath hot on her neck. “I’ve got this. Just trust me.”
Emma sighed. She did trust Adam, trusted him more than anyone else she knew. So she shut up.
Adam suggested fourteen bronzes and five coppers to the vendor. The vendor refused to dip below fifteen. They argued about the price for a while till finally the vendor agreed to sell them one block of milk chocolate for thirteen bronzes. The price was still high – much higher than Emma was comfortable with – but it was better than no chocolate at all.
After Adam came away with the chocolate, which the vendor had packaged in a little cardboard box, him and Emma counted out the remainder of the money they had brought down to the Alley. Adam only had five bronzes left, and Emma had ten. They bought some pepper and salt, a head of green lettuce, a bag of oranges, and a small turkey (it wouldn’t keep but it would make a few delicious dinners), but that was all they could afford.
They went back out the Alley. Adam went inside to take the stairs, while Emma started up the fire escape. As much as she loved swinging down the cables and platforms, she couldn’t really swing up. She always felt a little like a spider, scaling the weathered walls of tin and cement and stone with only a thin rusting ladder holding her up. But Emma knew that if she fell, which was extremely unlikely, she would be able to find something to grab onto, and that took away all the fear.
She finally made it to the Platform and hoisted herself onto it. Adam wasn’t there; he was either inside, or still climbing the stairs. Most likely, still climbing the stairs. Emma rolled her eyes and went inside.
Emma and Adam lived with three other kids in a tiny house, which constituted the eighteenth floor of their building. There were only two rooms, one for sleeping and one for living, and all that separated the two rooms were a few quilts hanging from a rod that stretched between the walls. The floor was made of tin and it was always cold, even in the summer, so they covered it with rugs, from wall to wall. The floor was a motley mix of colours, like a broken melody, so when you walked across the room, you felt out of tune.
Tag was sitting at the window with Annie. They were watching something intently, something Emma couldn’t see from where she was standing. One of the quilts that separated the bedroom from the living area was pulled back, and she could see Cap sprawled on one of the bedrolls, his arm draped across the floor.
Annie turned around. “Hi, Emma!” she said, running over. “What did you get?” Annie was even more excited than Emma had been. They all loved the days the vendors came, because then they all got fresh food. The rest of the time, they only had canned soup, canned fruit, canned vegetables, canned meat. After the Soup Raid, everyone in the city was nearly drowning in canned things. Now it was illegal to have fresh food.
But still, the vendors came, once every three months, like clockwork. Emma knew that the time she had left before she got caught was as wont to expire as fresh milk.
Emma put her basket on the table and took out the bread, the pepper and salt, the lettuce, and the oranges. “Adam’s coming with the rest,” she told Tag and Annie, who were inspecting the food. “He’s got cheese, garlic, a turkey…and a very special surprise.” Emma winked at Annie.
“What is it? What is it?” Annie started jumping up and down, grinning.
Emma mussed her hair. “Not telling,” she said to the younger girl. “What’s wrong with Cap?” Emma asked Tag, gesturing to the bedroom.
Tag shrugged. “He just hasn’t gotten up yet. Lazy, if you ask me.”
That was strange behaviour for Cap. His name was short for “Captain”, which was the name they’d all given him when they all started living together. Cap was a born leader, someone who naturally took charge and gave out orders with confidence. He was older than all the others, and they all looked up to him. So for him to be lying in bed all day was odd indeed.
Emma went over to the bedroom, pushing back a worn pink quilt. There were bedrolls and cushions scattered over the rug-covered floor; at night, everyone just chose a soft spot and passed out. There was nothing permanent about this home; everything was ready in case they had to get away quickly. Emma didn’t know when they would have to run, but it would have to be soon. She and Adam had been trading with the vendors for a very long time; they were one of the most loyal customers that came to the Alley. In fact, Adam had been the one to make an agreement with the vendors to keep them coming here. Cap had kept the pages Adam had signed; they had all thought it would be safer.
But all it had accomplished so far was to make Emma paranoid.
Emma crouched beside Cap. His hair had fallen over his eyes; his breathing was shallow and slow. She touched his arm to wake him up, and his skin was cold, sweaty.
“Cap?” she said, shaking his shoulder. “Cap, dude, wake up. This isn’t funny.” His face felt clammy. “Tag, come over here!”
Tag knelt down beside Emma. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked, shaking him. Cap wasn’t responding.
“I don’t know,” replied Emma. But she did know; at least, she suspected she knew. She felt his pockets and was relieved to find the pages still there. “He’s still breathing, though. When was he last awake?”
“Last night,” Tag said. “He went out to trade for some canned fruit. You know, from Old Red down on Rose Street.”
Emma nodded. “When he came back…did he seem okay?”
“Well, now that I think about it, he did seem tired…”
The door to the stairwell opened, and Adam burst through. “Quick, guys, we’ve got to get out of here,” he cried, grabbing the food Emma had brought and stuffing it into his backpack. “They’re coming!”
“Who’s coming?” Annie asked, watching as Adam went around the room in a panic, throwing food and useful items into his pack.
“The Silvermen,” he said, and Emma’s heart started to thud painfully. She could feel her pulse in her wrists, in her throat. She had been right. Of course she had been right. She wondered which vendor had tipped the Silvermen off.
“What do they want?” Tag asked.
Adam looked up. “Us,” he said simply. He picked up Annie, settling her on his hip, and started back towards the stairs.
“Adam,” Emma said, “don’t go that way.”
“Why?” asked Adam.
“It’s not fast enough,” she said. “Besides, that’s the way they’ll be coming up. You’re just running into your own trap. We’ve got to go out that way.” She pointed to the entrance to the Platform. The blanket that hung in the doorway was fluttering in the wind.
Adam shook his head. “Emma, I’ve told you a thousand times –”
“And I’ve told you a thousand times that you can do it,” Emma interrupted. “We don’t have time to argue. Do you want to get away, or what? Come on, Tag.” She pulled the other girl’s arm.
“But what about Cap?” Tag looked at his limp figure, his chest slowly rising, slowly falling.
Emma shook her head. “We can’t bring him. None of us could hang on to the cables while carrying him, too. It’s going to be hard enough to carry Annie.”
Tag started to cry. “We can’t just leave him.”
Emma went over and hugged her. Tag, usually so stoic and aloof, hugged her back, sobbing. “I’m sorry,” Emma said, and let go. “But we have to go. There’s so much at stake here. If they catch us, we have a s***-load to answer for.”
Tag took a deep, shuddering breath. “I know. Okay.”
“He’ll find us,” Emma said. That is, if they don’t get him first, she thought, but she didn’t say it.
She looked over at Cap. They’d drugged him, she knew it, drugged him so he couldn’t get away with them. She hated to let them win, but they wouldn’t win it all. Emma went to him, reached into his pocket and took out the pages. She folded them into her own pocket. The Silvermen wouldn’t get the proof they wanted that easily.
Emma wondered why they hadn’t taken the pages when they’d drugged him. She could only assume the drugs took a while to set in. That was the only way you’d ever be able to take something from Cap – by getting him unconscious.
“Come here, Annie.” Annie got off of Adam and ran to Emma. Emma knelt so that Annie could climb on her back. “You’re gonna have to hold on really tight,” she told the little girl. “Like a monkey. Can you do that?”
“Yep!” Annie said.
“Alright,” Emma said. “Adam, we’ve got to do this now.”
Adam looked at the stairwell, then to the Platform, then to Emma. He sighed.
“You can come with us, or you can stay here,” said Emma. “But either way, we’re leaving. You’re one of us, Adam. Prove it.”
Emma ran out the doorway to the Platform and jumped off the edge. She grasped a cable and slid, her hands chafing against the rubber. Annie giggled, exhilarated. Emma turned and saw Tag leaping off the Platform, finding a different cable than Emma, one directly underneath. Emma swung her arms and let go of her cable, grabbing onto a nearby fire escape. She paused there for a minute, hanging, then jumped off, her hands finding Tag’s cable.
“Where are we going?” Tag said, following Emma as she swung from cable to cable. Annie periodically let out screeches of joy.
“The East side,” Emma said. “There’s a safehouse there.”
“Emma!” The cry came from far behind them. Emma turned around, hanging from a wooden beam, and saw Adam standing at the edge of the Platform. “Wait for me!”
“Adam!” she called. “Jump! We’ll wait here! You can do it!”
Adam tensed, his legs readying themselves. Then he leapt off the Platform, his arms and legs flailing wildly.
“Grab onto a cable!” Emma shouted. Annie’s hands were sticky on her neck. “Reach up!”
Adam’s arms came up, and his hands found a cable. He hung there, suspended, and caught Emma’s eye. He grinned as he dangled there, not looking down, just looking at her.
“Now swing,” said Emma.
She grinned back.