He was always tapping his foot. Everyone his whole life suspected he would turn out a little strange like this. A little too tall, a little too ugly. On the perfectly smooth skyrail, his tallness and ugliness was especially obvious. Connor Hall, assigned mechanic by the Employment Council, looked out of place standing inside the skyrail. Below his tapping foot, through the glass floor, the city zoomed by. Since he lived in one himself, Connor could practically hear all the noises of the expansive one below. The latest technological development, the robotic newscasters, always predicted the news hours before they actually happened. He could already hear their sickly automatic voice boxes delivering the sunny weather with metallic monotony.
To pass the time, Connor began to whistle. He tried hard to remember a song, but nothing came to him. So he made one up himself. His too-tight uniform didn’t allow for much breathing room, but grew used to it over the past couple weeks. He accepted that uniforms simply weren’t made for someone of his height. The whirring of the skyrail engines and the hushed whispers of people around him weren’t enough to dilute the loudness of his off-key tune. But, Connor thought, at least I know how to whistle at all. Most people can’t! As far back as Connor could remember, the Education Council had always mandated that children at the age of five were required to attend Council-sponsored schools, where they became subject to intense curricula intended to drive out any remnants of annoyingly childish fantasies. Like whistling. Somehow, however, his record skipped and he’s been stuck with the childish habit ever since.
Ahead of Connor sat two young women dressed in freshly pressed business attire, their facial expressions as stiff as their clothes. They glared daggers at Connor while talking loudly amongst themselves, doing little to hide their blunt opinions.
“That’s just unnatural,” the first remarked, her lips pursed in annoyance, “and he’s not even performing correctly! Only the Council Choirs are allowed to perform musically.”
“Well,” began the other, hair taut in a perfectly calculated bun, “for every litter there is a runt, isn’t there? Even at that height.”
The two synchronized chuckles that followed sent pangs to his heart, so he stopped whistling. Seeming satisfied, the women returned to their usual conversation, remembering to check their watches impatiently. The skyrail docked at the Station, where Connor was commissioned by the City Council to fix some underground pipes in the heart of Una City. At first, he was excited about the mission; he would finally be able to prove his worth to his Engineering Department back home. He would have liked to be assigned to the Council Choirs at 16, but wishful thinking was already drained out of him by then. The Employment Council was wise in picking him for the mechanic career. He wasn’t good at anything else, after all!
Outside the station, Connor swathed his lungs in musty city air. His mind was enveloped in the chrome, steely tones of the metropolis: Beeping machinery, chugging steam vehicles, hissing technologies and hissing people. The city moved like a clockwork model.
Connor walked with a light cadence, his feet carrying him to the center of the city square. The people of Una City were strangely quiet here. His eyes wandered, taking in the various gaits and languages the people practiced. After looking on at a few older, slower moving gentlemen, Connor stared at little shell-like objects caressing everyone’s ears, no doubt feeding them the news for tomorrow. Connor felt in his pocket for his own shell. It was cold.
Around a corner, he discovered some tempting fruit vendors and decided to indulge himself in an apple before getting to work. He walked around the square to the very last vendor in the row of salesmen. The old man lounging behind the apple stand seemed friendly enough, so Connor picked out the juiciest looking apple of them all, his mouth watering at the prospect of indulging himself in fresh fruit rather than his typical bland mush. The old man smiled at him and presented his open hand to Connor. When he placed a coin in the vendor’s hand, however, the man recoiled his spidery hands, his face scrunching in disgust.
“Is that not enough? I’m sorry. Here, I have more-” Connor fished through his pockets and presented a few more smaller coins to the vendor. But when he looked directly in his eyes, Connor winced at the sight. The man’s eyes were a cloudy haze, an unnatural whiteness that stared blankly at random directions. He was blind. Connor had never seen a blind man before. It just simply wasn’t the way things were. He felt sympathy for the man, and almost brought out more money to give, but he was quickly interrupted.
“Begone! Horrid creature!” The blind man raspy voice spat, “your hands. They’re unclean.”
Though he was indeed blind, Connor could sense the venom in his eyes, the blistering anger that bored right through him.
“Unclean! Unclean! Unclean!”
The blind man groped madly at Connor’s wrists before he could pull away, the apple dropping to the floor unceremoniously. The man turned Connor’s palms over and shoved them in his own face. The man’s grip tightened, his crumby fingernails digging into the soft underside of his arm, turning all fingertips involved red. People started to crowd and mumble around him. Connor clenched his jaw and managed to pry the blind man’s claws from his wrists amidst his wails. The man burst into a final teary fit, throwing apples randomly in a seething, all-consuming rage.
Connor skirted around the narrowed eyes and pursing lips, the white-hot wash of shame cloaking him in a horribly visible aura until he finally lodged himself in an alley of disquiet.
Emotions welled up inside of him, things he hadn’t felt before, or at least in a very long time. Somehow, this was freeing. His heart was racing and fluttering, as if it had grown wings, leading his feet where they wanted to go instead of where they needed to. Hoards of people scowled at him as he ran back out, and Connor immediately stopped to compose himself. He didn’t want to attract the attention of the police for disturbing the peace. So, Connor put his hands back into his pockets and aligned himself back on his engineering mission, frowning. He should have torn the apple away from the blind man’s stand when he first came up to it.
He stood above the large manhole and waited. Someone was supposed to have moved this already. Looking around, Connor saw none save the occasional rat. In this back alley, the streets seemed darker, the formerly perfect angles of the buildings tossing shadows all around him with reckless abandon, layering darkness upon shade. The air was thick with a living silence, and Connor drew a breath. Deciding not to wait any longer, Connor adjusted his tool belt and bent over to dig his fingers into the manhole cover. The silver inscription on the manhole read:
WARNING. DANGEROUS. PROCEED WITH CAUTION.
PRAISE THE UNA CITY POLICE DEPARTMENT FOR KEEPING US SAFE.
His nerves riddled his mind with excited doubts. He wasn’t entirely sure he should be doing this. Then, his heart again gained wings, feathering blood rapidly through his veins. Never mind all that, he thought.
I want to do this.
Connor’s hands shook, the exerted force threading miniscule sweat beads over his pores. After some effort, he managed to toss the manhole aside, exposing the pitch-black sewer entrance. Curious, he lay on his stomach and peered down through the hole, panting. The blackness of the plunge below complemented the gray midday shadows above. Barely visible rusty rungs invited Connor inside. Grasping the first with his hands, Connor swung his legs down into the expanse and lowered himself into the sewer. His palms itched with a strange current.
One foot after the other, Connor gradually lowered himself further into the pit, eyes fixed on the gray sky above, a small slice of the increasingly disappearing world. Connor breathed in and comforted himself with songs he did not know. He sang random words, sentences for himself and the sky above, eventually settling for a simple yet invigorating melody.
His voice echoed throughout the chamber, sending sound waves back to his own pleased ears, encouraging him to go on..
Doh De La ah…
Suddenly, he stopped. Chills echoed through his body. No one could hear me calling for help. He gripped the rungs tighter and looked back up. The sky was barely visible now. He must be almost there. No turning back now.
La Lee Lo…
His voice quivered.
Connor’s foot touched down on slimy ground. His muscles relaxed and he sighed. Letting go of the rungs and wiped his hands on his trousers, he ahead at the tunnel. Once his eyes adjusted, he could make out vague black shapes tucked in the sides of the tunnel, hunched silhouettes that gave Connor a feeling of old, of ancient things that hadn’t been seen or touched in ages. He spent time standing and wondering if any person has even been down here before. Eventually, Connor reasoned that the sewers were waste, and nobody ever wanted to confront waste. It just wasn’t the way things were done. He ran his fingers along the course tunnel walls, feeling out the brick and rough mortar, the blood circling round his fingers cooling and charging with the same mysterious energy as before. A strange wind whistled by his ear into the darkness beyond. Connor followed.
When he came upon the shapes he saw earlier, he realized they were just heaps of garbage, waste dumped into more waste. Connor cracked his knuckles with his thumbs, almost disappointed by the discovery. What if he was in the right place after all and this is just another job? Just another assignment to do, to go home and report back to the Department, to eat and sleep and work day in and day out, over and over…
That wasn’t enough. It never was. To him, it just wasn’t the way. His way. He thought of the chuckling women in the skyrail and closed his hands into fists, his knees starting to feel weak. I’m not waste, he concluded. His bottom lip started to tremble, so he bit it sharply.
The slippery floor propelled him forward, gifting him a foward-facing momentum. There must be something here for him. He could feel it, could hear it calling out to him from deep inside the tunnel. It was here. A shape. Almost…
Connor stopped, blinking at what stood before him. He reached up and rubbed his chin raw, curious yet confused. In the center of the tunnel laid an old, rotting contraption. He approached it, his humid breath filling the space between him and his discovery.
It was old, very old. In fact, he didn’t even think he recognized the materials it was made of. It was in a state of decay, its curvy body rotting away, bathing in the musk of the muggy environment. At the front of the object lay ivory rectangles separated by smaller charcoal ones, the small planks aligned in a perfect line. Intrigued, Connor approached it, his head pounding in apprehension and excitement. It was in terrible condition, but he grazed his hand against the body anyway, the frame of the object still achingly beautiful. Its smooth surface was softened by layers of dust, dirt and sewage. Some rectangular pieces were missing and it stood on only three legs, but yet the craftsmanship of the thing displayed that it was once greatly taken care of. Suddenly, Connor’s foot slipped on the sticky floor and his hands pushed into the keys. A loud resonance rang throughout the chamber, electrifying Connor’s nerves. A smile stretched across his face, heart now thumping madly. It felt as if his heart wanted to burst out of his ribcage and land directly onto the instrument in front of him. But he could do better. He moved his fingers around more delicately this time. Deep and high sounds broke through the barrier of stillness, leaving Connor’s fingers outstretched and trying to reach the outermost keys.
He played individual notes. Then multiple at once. Some sounded fragile, others deep and rich. Not all of the sounds Connor produced were beautiful, but was nonetheless organic. And so, here in this sewer, Connor played. He formed a simple melody and sang along, passions alight. His heart skipped beats, but he wasn’t keeping time. Maybe, Connor decided, the world above was decaying. But here! Here there was music! Who would want to live in a world without music?
Connor’s physical body melded with his sense of sound, creating tangible, fleshy harmonies that seemed to only be extensions of himself.
In the next few weeks, Connor Hall visited his symphonic sanctuary regularly to “maintain” the underground pipes. He still tapped his foot incessantly, but now, when he whistled along, he planned new melodies that he might play. The stares were more frequent now, and he adored them. Many thought him to be mad, and he welcomed them to think so.
One day, when standing above the entrance yet again, Connor instead felt pangs of sadness instead of excitement. He looked back at the streets bustling with people, then back at his tunnel. It couldn’t be enough. He couldn’t go on hiding in waste to become waste itself.
He never returned.
All around him droned robots and robotic machinery, an opera of gilded chrome. He could hear all the deafening mechanical jargon. Connor shoved his hands in his pockets and felt for his earshell. For a moment he held it like a helpless fly in between his fingers, but finally broke it with a satisfying crunch. He looked up at the skyrails and the building above. I want to see the sky, Connor thought bitterly, I want to see the clouds. Pushing through the waves of automaton zombies, he felt hot tears slide down his cheeks. He was moving faster now. He remembered the music he created. The discoveries he had made. The beauty of it all. The passions he wanted to share with the world. The passion of free will. He no longer thought of his job, the blind man, or the stares gawking at his oddities. He was free.
Connor finally reached the grand city entrance. Looking out onto the green world, he saw in the distance small villages and even smaller cottages, areas he had neither seen nor heard of, there all the time. He looked back at Una City to shrug away that world. Not his way.. He turned back and faced the unknown ahead, whistling a tune of a song he did not know. There was more to this life than some Council telling him where to go. He wanted to find out all about it.
James Vaughan is a young writer studying English at university. His passions for reading and writing have earned him many awards in the past, forming a reputation as James has won numerous local contests.