Days, weeks, months later—who can say?—the old grump would dodder back to her leaky cottage, face twisted into the familiar rictus of a scowl. The hinges bleated out a welcome-home screech as she opened the door, gouging the stress lines deeper still into her weathered skin.
Sam, her grumpy and ungrateful mutt, deigned to snuffle out a perfunctory grunt in acknowledgment as she entered the cottage—more than could be said of her grumpy husband, who acknowledged her not at all. In six familiar strides, the old grump traversed the extent of the cramped shack (they’d called it “cozy” when they were still in love) and sank into her favorite and only fireside chair.
She pulled off her worn leather boots, stretching her toes languidly towards the ruddy glow of the burning hearth and wresting one of life’s few creature comforts from the heat of the flames. Her hand wandered absently to her jacket pocket—a frequent impulse, lately. There she fingered the familiar ridges on the gold coins secreted away in the jacket’s folds, bothered ever still by the niggling itch that had settled into the back of her mind since she’d acquired them.
As the warmth seeped into her creaky bones, her frown deepened in two stages: first in irritation as, eyes darting across the flame-blackened wall of the hearth, she realized that her miserable old codger of a husband still hadn’t scrubbed down the soot from the stones as he’d begrudgingly promised to do just that very morning. And second in horrified relief as the probing finger of suspicion finally found its mark to scratch that old itch.
But if her suspicion matured to realization—if she wondered at how a denizen of the Stacks had managed to produce a pair of clean, gleaming gold coins, unsullied by the perennial sooty filth belched out of the Stacks foundries, let alone how a Stacks child of no more than sixteen had managed to come across what amounted to six months’ wages for a grizzled foundry foreman–who would know to assert such a thing, let alone prove it?
And if those coins found their way not into a cold Imperial evidence locker for a trial that couldn’t find its long-gone suspect, but right back into her pocket to save for some brief respite from her tired old life, well—who could fault the old grump?
* * *
Octavia Gelman–eighth child to a rough-tongued drunkard of a mother, third girl to a father who wanted only boys, and first woman of Gelman stock to ever dare to escape the Stacks—bounded up the central staircase of the grand Stackside airship station, alighting finally on the main landing that made up the heart of the airport. From this heart sprouted the station’s many arteries; each led to a gate from which Tavi could board one of the airships that would take her away from the industrial Stacks that had been her home for as long as she’d been alive.
Tavi’s eyes swept across the lacquered signs, scanning for her 12:56 departure flight. Her eyes found the gilded clock overlooking the station first; its mocking face sneered “12:48.”
Her legs screamed for rest, and the ever-present respirator she carried always on her back seemed much heavier than usual—though that extra weight was no trick of the mind, of course. The respirator would normally be churning away, sucking in dirty Stacks air, separating out the soot, and piping clean air into the face mask snaking out of the respirator. She felt strangely naked without it around her mouth and nose, so unaccustomed was she to breathing clean ambient air freely—but the regal Stackside station was equipped with its very own air purifiers to keep the filthy Stacks pollution outside, and clean air within.
It came at an incredible cost, but what expense could be spared for the comfort of the Topsiders who begrudgingly traveled through the station?
At last Tavi’s eyes found their mark: 12:56 to Alvadere. Gate IV. “All aboard: last call,” it challenged.
Her legs’ protest fell on deaf ears as she sprinted anew across the marbled station floors towards the gate tunnel.
One would expect, Tavi thought sourly, that years of rushing to meet appointments would have trained her legs not to protest so heartily, yet protest they did. Being born into an impoverished Stacks slum was Tavi’s first foolish mistake, and demanded that she find work young. Conveniently, children fit quite neatly into the ventilation shafts of purified-air buildings like the Stackside station.
Tavi was fortunate enough to find employment scrubbing those shafts of filtered-out soot. It was a decent enough job, and one that offered fascinating vignettes into the Topsiders’ lives. That very morning, in fact, Tavi had found herself clambering through the shafts of a Topsider bank situated within the Stacks—a foreign concept indeed for one who could fit all of her worldly possessions in her pockets with space enough to spare.
Tavi’s smooth-soled boots glided across the polished floors as she dashed around a corner; the treads had long since worn away. A glance back to the clock showed 12:51. Her breath came in ragged gasps, and to ration out the air she had long since stopped apologizing to passersby she indecorously shouldered aside. But her labors bore fruit as at last she sighted, at the end of the sprawling hallway, the gangplank connecting her past to her future. New strength flowed through her weary legs as she attacked the shrinking gap.
The command shattered the air and her spirits in one terse syllable. Tavi lurched to an uneasy stop, her eyes craning up to meet the gaze of the Imperial soldier blocking the path to the airship. His arms rested easily at his sides; the look of disdain splayed across his hardened face promised that his hands would be none too slow in moving to the steel-banded truncheon hanging from his waist.
As Tavi well knew, one of the otherworldly Topsiders’ supernatural abilities was being able to see right through lowly Stacks residents. Indeed, Tavi often had reason to count on the Topsiders not seeing her. It was no promising sign at all that this soldier had deigned to address her.
“I… have my ticket… right here,” Tavi wheezed, holding the embossed slip of paper aloft.
The soldier’s sneer twisted deeper.
“Do I look like a ticket maid to you?” he said. Sweat dripped from Tavi’s brow, and venom from his voice. She forced a measure of cordiality into hers and willed her lungs to breathe out the words.
“Of course not, sir,” she said. “How may I help you?”
“All departures need to be searched. Stackside Bank was robbed.”
Tavi gasped—though whether from surprise or exhaustion, one could only guess.
“Of course, sir,” she said, raising her arms, eyes darting frantically to the clock. 12:53. “Go right ahead.”
He knelt down, running his hands over her arms, legs, trunk. The search was carried out with perfunctory disinterest in large part, though his hands lingered too long in some places than others. Tavi gritted her teeth, eyes locked on the clock; his hands were not the ones that monopolized her attention. 12:54.
He turned her around, hands patting up her body from her ankles. His nose wrinkled in disgust as his search brought him to the knapsack-like respirator slung across her back, brimming with soot extracted from the Stacks air.
Tavi’s malnourished and emaciated body suggested her status as a Stacks resident. The ever-present film of soot on her body and clothing confirmed it. But the respirator was the surest and most stigmatized sign that one hailed from the factory slums.
Without the respirators, survival in the thick Stacks air wouldn’t be possible for any creature having the misfortune of needing to breathe to survive. Even the Topsiders had to admit that an asphyxiated workforce was not a particularly efficient one. Of course, that inconvenient reality didn’t prevent them from churning a neat profit out of the whole affair.
Since Stacks residents couldn’t hope to afford buying their own respirators, the Topsiders graciously loaned them out. The whirring, whizzing gizmos inside collected the separated-out soot and compacted it into nice, even bricks to be sold back to the factories as rent. A small price to pay for the privilege of breathing, and a handy solution indeed that turned the factory workers into tiny factories themselves. It was no large surprise that such clever Topsiders had outfoxed their way to the top of the food chain.
The machines had the added effect, of course, of immediately marking its bearer as a filthy, low-born pariah to the Topsiders. Even touching the soot-caked contraption was a tall order for a Topsider unused to breathing Stacks air. Indeed, a cursory glance of disgust at the respirator from the soldier convinced him that duty required only so much.
Tavi had planned as much, of course.
“Good enough,” he said. “Get out of my sight.”
“Of course, sir,” Tavi said, dashing away. She didn’t look back to see the soldier cleanse his sullied hands on a nearby rag.
Tavi danced out of the final mob of milling patrons, a clear stretch of but twenty meters separating her from the gate—that, and the mean-looking gate attendant who began swinging the wrought-iron gate across the gangplank entrance.
“No, no, no,” Tavi gasped, legs still pumping. The gate latch clicked shut just as Tavi slid to a stop before the attendant.
“Boarding Closed,” jeered the sign on the gate.
“Excuse me, ma'am,” Tavi said. “I have a ticket.” Her hand lurched forward to the attendant, clutching the paper in supplication.
“Can’t you read?” said the old grump. She chuckled a humorless laugh as she scanned Tavi’s bedraggled clothes. “’Course you can’t. Boarding’s closed. You’re too late.”
She turned back to the gate, looping a lock around the gate latch.
“Please, ma’am!” Tavi protested. “I’ve my ticket right here! The ship hasn’t even-”
“Are you deaf as well as stupid, you illiterate whelp?” the old grump thundered, rearing back to face her. “I said you’re too late. Take your filth somewhere else before I tell them you’re trespassing.” Her chin jut out to the cadre of soldiers.
Rage, misery welled up inside Tavi; her spirits plunged but snapped back just as quickly with the blossoming of a simple last gambit. Obviously the language a Topsider was most fluent in would not be compassion, Tavi realized.
“Of course, ma’am,” Tavi said. “I apologize; I can’t believe I’ve nearly forgotten the late-boarding fee.”
Tavi’s hand emerged from behind her back clutching two bright, shining gold coins; nearly the cost of the ticket itself. Taking care to obscure them from the soldiers behind her, Tavi proffered the coins to the woman.
The old grump’s eyes bulged from her head, first at the coins and then to the oblivious soldiers. Her hand lurched out to retrieve the coins as she began poking and prodding her quarry. They passed whatever test the old grump had concocted, for she stuffed them away and hurriedly pulled open the gate, ushering Tavi aboard.
“Hurry up then,” she mumbled.
Tavi’s thanks were lost to the wind as she scrambled up the gangplank and onto the ship deck, just as a crew member locked the passenger doors behind her with a disapproving nod.
Back at the gate, the old grump pulled the coins once more from her pocket, eyes narrowed on her plunder. Something unnerved her, though she couldn’t quite place it. She stowed the coins away again with a sigh, pushing the itch to the back of her mind. She had a job to do, after all.
* * *
Brackish streaks ran down Tavi’s face as her tears swept the soot away. Her hands involuntarily shot up to cover her mouth as the door to her cabin whispered to a close behind her. Her smile, wide as it was, peeked out from behind her hands anyway, so taken aback was she by the most quiet, private, blessedly clean space she had ever seen—let alone had all to herself. She allowed herself a moment of unabashed, childlike wonderment as she peeked out the window of her personal cabin at the billowing urban sprawl of the Stacks laid out before her.
Tavi shook her head from its stupor, slinging the respirator from her back and triple-checking the lock on the door. Her trained hands scampered across the device, unscrewing, unlocking, unclasping the various fasteners charged with sealing the device. Theirs was an important task: securing the large, rigid-sided void inside the respirator that stored the soot extracted from the air. Tavi’s hands plunged into the soot and rooted around for several seconds before finding purchase on the airtight pouch buried deep within the mountain of particles. She pulled the pouch out as black, powdery rivulets streamed off its exterior.
Tavi placed the pouch down carefully, reverently, as she pulled loose the drawstrings and gazed disbelievingly at its contents. The tears of bliss came back in earnest this time, wracking her small body as the airship, surging upwards, broke through the upper reaches of the black clouds suffocating the Stacks.
Sunlight streamed in through the window now, suffusing the cabin with the warm glow of a sun unobstructed. Its rays meandered about the space, dancing off the brass trappings that debecked the walls. Those rays that twirled merrily into the pouch were swiftly turned aside, reflecting off of the pouch’s contents and onto Tavi’s face.
And as the scintillating light splashed onto her—the airship parting clean air before it and soaring higher and higher still away from the shrouded Stacks—Tavi’s tear-soaked face was finally wreathed not in black, but in gold.