Chapter One: Tears of a Child
She should never have been there. It should never have happened. But sometimes, things that shouldn't be have a way of occurring on their own.
Perhaps, at the top of the City, people could see stars. Down here, the only things that could be seen were shadows, no matter whether it was day or night. The skyscrapers loomed high above, and the only things that were easy to see were the bright orange vans of the Civic Building Repair Committee. It was their job to maintain the lowest levels of the buildings, to stop the tops falling down, and they usually did it as fast as possible before leaving. There was no real need for this. On Ground Level, even the gangs were cautious, and would jump through hoops to avoid drawing undue attention.
It was cold. Heat rises, and so the ground level was the coldest place of all. The girl hugged her knees close as she stared up at the sky. She was grubby, but even so it was easy to see that she had long silver-white hair and pale skin. Her eyes were dark, and far too large for her face. Her body was small from malnourishment, but it was clear that even if she had been well fed from birth, she would have been small and pixie-like. Her ears were odder still. They were, like her eyes, large for her head, and the tips rose to a small point. She was wearing a rather grubby and patched brown dress and was barefoot.
Her large ears picked up a faint sound, and the girl scrambled to her feet and dodged behind a pile of rubbish. Footsteps echoed in the darkness, mingled with sobs, the two sounds echoing together through the ghost-streets. The girl watched as a stranger ran into view, a little girl barely six years old. Despite her tender years, the watcher could tell that she wasn't from this Level. The little girl was childishly chubby, her brown hair cut in a neat bob, her faded clothes mended neatly. Nobody was chubby on Ground Level. Nobody looked this healthy or cared-for. The pale girl shrank down further behind the rubbish pile, pushing herself up against the chute it had come from.
The little girl was crying, huge sobs racking her small body. Abruptly, she stopped running and threw herself down onto another pile of waste, the soft standard-issue bags giving way beneath her as she wailed.
The pale girl frowned. The child was sitting beneath a waste chute. If she wasn't careful, she would get flattened by the next rubbish load.
When the City had spread over the ocean, decades before, the authorities had finally run out of places to dump the rubbish. Since Ground Level was largely uninhabited, at least as far as the people in charge were concerned, it had become the city's dumping ground for everything that was too far gone to recycle. As far as the upper levels were concerned, that was everything. The waste chutes ran up the entire length of the city, and periodically dumped a load onto the piles below.
Everybody on Ground Level haunted the chute openings, in the hope of finding something good, and everybody learned very early on to recognise the warning signs and get out of the way before a load was dumped. The ones who didn't were smothered to death. Now, the pale girl could hear the distant rumbling that preceded a dump from one of the nearby chutes. Her sharp ears pinpointed the exact one, and her heart leapt. The little girl, still sobbing desperately, was about to be crushed.
Almost any other denizen of Ground Level would have stayed where they were and left the little girl to her fate. Altruism was not a survival trait. But the pale girl was different, and so as soon as she realised the little girl was in danger she rushed out and pulled her out the way.
The little girl was amazed to find a pair of thin, white arms hauling her to one side. She yelped, and pushed back, but the strange child who had pulled her out of the way scuttled backwards, pointing to the metal chute opening behind her. The little girl turned, just in time to see an immense load of rubbish tumble out and land on the spot where she had just been sitting. Her skin paled, and she forgot to cry.
The pale girl was moving forwards, hunting through the dropped rubbish. The little girl watched as she placed item after item to one side; broken things, of no use. Then a flash of green caught her eye, and before she knew what she was doing she had shot out a single hand and seized it.
The pale girl turned, and for a moment the two stood looking at the prize; a single, spindly plant, its white roots showing plainly even in the darkness.
"I want it," said the little girl, slowly, her eyes looking earnestly at her rescuer. "Please?"
The pale girl scrutinised the plant. She hadn't wanted it anyway, and wouldn't have stopped the girl from taking it, but now an urge rose up in her to help instead of simply not hindering. She closed her eyes, remembering how she'd seen similar green things before. Sometimes they grew; sometimes not, and at some point she'd noticed why.
"Here," the pale girl said, holding out a cracked mug that had been in the latest load. It was made from real clay, and had undoubtedly been dropped from one of the highest levels. The little girl took it, and the pale girl carefully scooped a handful of the crumbling vegetable matter into the makeshift pot.
"You have to put it in that," she explained. She'd seen other plants growing in the waste, and knew it would work.
The little girl looked at the small green thing she held. "Do lots of these fall down?" she asked. The pale girl nodded. Who knew why? She watched the thoughtful expression on the other child's face.
"Thank you," the little girl said, finally. She smiled, and without thinking the pale girl returned the gesture. For a moment, they shared that look, then the little girl turned and began to make her way back into the darkness.
As she did so, a strange image came unbidden to the pale girl's mind. Before her eyes, green plants appeared, growing from the ground. They crept up the walls, hung from the shattered walkways overhead. Flowers grew; there was the hum of insects, and the girl could make out animals in the undergrowth. Bright lights overhead illuminated the paradise, and in the centre the pale girl could just make out a woman.
She was an average person, to look at. Young, and moderate in appearance, but not a great beauty. What was special about her was the way she glowed, the love and warmth that seemed to pour out of her and into the plants all around. The woman turned to the pale girl and smiled, and the warmth seemed to fill her. Then, as suddenly as it had come, the vision faded away. The pale girl was once again standing in a filthy alley, with only shadows around her. The distant rumbles of the city above came to her ears.
The pale girl watched the retreating back of the stranger, and smiled.