Trip Nortrel landed hard on the carpets and had the wind knocked out of him, but nothing was going to take the spirit out of him on this day. He watched and waited as the refuse ahead of him made its way through the rubber curtains ahead, and at once he and his carpet was catapulted into North Streamtown. “Hey! Who the hell are you?”
Trip rolled off the carpets on the belt and landed on his feet before a group of three workers. They were wearing stitched clothing and seemed astonished at Trip’s appearance.
“I---uh, was doing work on the other side, and some chemicals got on my clothes. I took them off and put these on, but I slipped on the chemicals and fell down onto the conveyor belt,” Trip tried to appear apologetic.
“You could’ve spent the time taping that trash on looking for decent clothing, fellow,” a tall worker stared at him. “You look like an Idiot!”
“Well, are there any spare clothes on this side?” Trip asked nonchalantly, though his mind was racing at breakneck speed. He had never seen men this old before and assumed they were in their forties. Most people thought anyone older than that died in the Big Bang. Some of their hair was gone, their skin sagged like those who had too much to eat, and they had wrinkles on their faces. For some reason they looked a bit like newborns. Yet they seemed wise and very confident in themselves, more so than even Big Boys.
“Sure, there should be some in that row of lockers over there,” the pointed to the far wall where the metal compartments stood. Trip rushed over there, knowing that both he and they would be greatly relieved when he changed to stitched clothing. He unbuckled his boots and ripped his tape off, searching furtively through the lockers until he found a shirt and overalls that were about his size. He got dressed quickly and jogged back dutifully to where they had resumed picking and pulling refuse off the conveyor belt.
“Okay, fellow, you go on over to the right and take the elevator to the grade level,” the tall man pointed to a gated passageway in the middle of the large factory floor. “There’ll be a crossover, and you can get back to where you belong. Just send the clothes back over on the belt when you’re through with them.”
Trip started towards the elevator shaft but could not help but pause in astonishment as he beheld the spectacle before him. It was the first time he had ever seen a megagear. The toothed mechanical wheel transmitted motion to countless rotating bodies of all shapes and sizes surrounding it, turning them by means of enormous belts that connected them all. It was the core of the building, amidst what appeared to be six balconied levels surrounding it. The megagear turned as slowly as a windmill, but the smaller wheels connected to it rotated at varying rates of speed according to their size. The small ones on the grade level, resembling the steam engines built by his Acme Team, spun furiously in generating power that it transmitted to networks outside the plant.
“Say, fellow, you’d best get a move on,” the tall man called after him. “If you stand there gawking like an Idiot, some boys your size may come along and start giving you a hard time.”
“He dresses like an Idiot and acts like an Idiot, but definitely doesn’t talk like one,” his co-worker grunted as he lifted a huge bale of wires off the conveyor. “Shame how things are for those Southie kids on the other side.”
“Eh, well, we’re all lucky to be alive, aren’t we?” the tall man got back to work.
Trip trotted over to the elevator, his heart and mind racing as he thought what to do next. He pressed the DOWN button and eventually the elevator rose to his level. He forced open the gates and pulled them shut, staring quizzically at the apparatus that operated the transport. By the right side of the doorway was a huge brass lever which moved left to right and labeled UP and DOWN. He pushed the lever to the left and, at once, he could feel the cables tensing as they pulled the car towards the upper floors.
It seemed he was on the fourth floor, and the elevator rattled and hummed as it pulled itself up to the sixth level. He yanked the gate open and saw that the floor served as a storage area of sorts, strewn with dusty sacks and crates. He got out and looked from left to right, spotting a cobwebbed red box on the wall containing a long pickaxe. He forced the box open and pulled loose the pickaxe, then began searching about for an access way to the rooftop.
He finally found a staircase labeled ROOF, which led to a dark doorway at the top of the steps. He was certain that it was sealed and barricaded from the outside, as the safety of the Team on the rooftop demanded that the Residents never gain access to the roof. One of the greatest priorities on the Top was to ensure that the roof was kept in perfect condition, patched and painted so as to never leak, and the vents preserved and replaced as needed so that the Grounders never had reason to come up. When a Team detected the Residents coming through the seals and barricades, they evacuated as best they could so there was little or no sign of the large number of people living up there.
He knew the first sign of Residents coming through was that of banging and yelling, so he knew he had to be quiet as possible in forcing this door open. He wedged the pointed end of the pick into the doorframe and used his weight in prying it ever so lightly, finally using his boot in mustering all his strength against it. He knew they would have used a natural sealant rather than nails or adhesives lest the Residents realize that persons had secured it from the outside. He finally cracked it open, and took a short rest as he peeked through to the outside for any signs of motion. Satisfied that no one was nearby, he turned the axe around to the heavier end and wedged it into the crack before forcing the door open. His heart skipped a beat as the hinges shrieked abruptly, but when he peeked out and saw no one, he slipped onto the roof and forced the door closed behind him.
He dared to look over to the southern parapet facing the Acme Industrial Building, and he was astonished to see the beloved figure looking over intently, a handheld mirror in her grasp. He looked from left to right before loping over on the balls of his feet, making as little noise on the tarpaper before curving in his approach so as not to startle her.
“Trip!” he spun, her violet eyes widened with joy.
She set down the mirror and they fell into each other’s arms. Their lips found one another’s, and at first they pecked and smooched before their mouths opened and their tongues intertwined voraciously. It was almost as a spiritual feast had overtaken them, and they nearly had to force themselves apart before they lost complete control.
“You’ve got real clothes!” she marveled. “How did you get up here?”
“It’s a long story,” he explained. “Is there a place where I can hide out so no one will spot me?” “Yes, I’ll take you over to where most of the girls have their tents,” she assured him, holding out her hand. “Come along.”
He took her hand and she led him to the northeast corner of the roof, which seemed a bit bigger than that of the Acme building. Ahead of them he could see a variety of tents erected in the corner surrounded by parapets. They were very cozy, having their uprights and their overheads decorated with strings of beads and colorful baubles. Most of the entrances were veiled, and the tents had cushions set about so the occupants could sit around tiny tables amidst miniature shelves and cases. Three girls who were outside the tents sorting out handcrafts saw them coming. They stopped what they were doing to wave in greeting.
“Lyrica, Lyrica,” a youngun came running up to her. “Who’s your friend?”
“This is Trip, he has cabled over from the Carlisle Engine Company,” she pointed to the building across the vast space north of their rooftop. “Now, I have not announced him yet, so don’t ruin my surprise, promise?” “Promise, promise, cross my heart!” the boy jumped up and down. Lyrica reached into the broad pocket of her denim dress and gave the boy some dried fruits. He leaped for joy and thanked her before running away to find his friends.
“Gee, do you trust him, Lyrica?” Trip asked worriedly.
“Of course, he crossed his heart and promised,” her laughter tinkled as the morning breeze rushed past them, carrying the scent of the steam blanketing the Stream below them.
“Suppose he crossed his fingers?”
“Why, he wouldn’t dare. He’d be sent to Time Out,” she assured him.
“Hello, Lyrica,” the pretty girls came up to them. They all had light-colored hair and eyes and were very cute, but none so beautiful as Lyrica.
“Who is your friend?”
“This is Trip, he is from the Team on Carlisle,” she replied merrily. “I told him he could spend the day here with us, since I haven’t announced him yet. Would that be okay?”
“Why, sure!” they replied happily. “We will have lunch together!”
Lyrica took Trip’s hand as she led him to her tent, and he was almost intoxicated by the feel of her hand in his. She had soft, smooth skin, and though her hands were a bit smaller than his, they were strong and well-formed with a velvety palm and longish fingers. He could smell the scent of lilac in her hair, something rarely experienced at the Acme Top. He did his best not to stare, but her profile was so lovely that he could barely keep his eyes off her.
She came to a small veiled tent at the end of the row, and got down on all fours to crawl inside. He followed suit, and she squatted down on a cushion in the cozy corner as he did likewise at the tiny table between them. He felt a thrill course through his body, and he could not believe that this day started just hours ago with a death-defying plunge for his life.
“It’s so wonderful to have you here, it’s like a dream,” she gushed.
“I ‘m just dying with questions to ask,” Trip was overwhelmed. “I’m not even sure where to start. Don’t you have Big Boys patrolling around looking for incidents?”
“Well, they’re usually busy making sure no one cheats when they’re moving goods about,” she pursed her lips. “The Traders are always shortchanging people, and they seem to make a game of it. You know how people pick up bad habits faster than good ones. Denizens end up trying to trick each other, and not so much in being mean-spirited as just to see if they can get away with it.”
“This is all so strange,” he shook his head. “I don’t understand why the Traders are so friendly to the Northers and so mean to us.”
“Well, don’t you know that when the younguns come of age, they get sent to the Tower to learn to trade,” Lyrica revealed. “In some sort of way, all of us become related somehow. Everybody’s got a drop of blood from everyone else, so you don’t want to be rude to someone who might be your kin. Even so, the Traders don’t respect anyone when it comes to dealing. Just because they seem polite with us up at the Tower doesn’t mean they wouldn’t short us in a second.”
“Well, now…” Trip mused, trying to absorb the avalanche of information that was cascading down upon him. “Is that why you all have stitched clothing and dried fruits and all these nice things?”
“I suppose so,” Lyrica looked at him, touched by the look of sadness in his eyes. “ Is it so hard over there in South Streamtown? I’m so sorry to hear that.”
“I hope it doesn’t make you think poorly of me,” he lowered his head. “You must wonder why I spent all those mornings Morsing with you,” she surmised.
“I’m afraid I do,” he managed, fearful now that he would be rejected on this most wonderful day of his life.
“It’s not all smiles and sunshine over here, regardless of what it seems like,” she said regretfully. “Everyone is happy here because most everyone takes but doesn’t make, like the Grounders do. The Grounders have to work hard to grow food, make merchandise and build machines. All the traders do is exchange items, and laugh about how little they work to grow fat and rich. It’s like they’ve built their own little world up here, and they teach younguns to grow up exactly like them. Sure, they’re sweet and respectful while they’re with us, but once they’re old enough to grow a beard, they get sent to the Tower where they’re taught to be mean. I just hoped that there might be someone on the other side of the Stream who didn’t think like that, and wanted to have a youngun someday who wouldn’t be like that. I dreamed it would be you.”
“Younguns don’t even have a chance of going to the Tower on our side,” Trip revealed angrily. “When you’re old enough to grow a beard, and you don’t act like you don’t have a care in the world, they cross you out and send you down. If they can’t prove you’re invalid, they find a reason to declare that you are. I would do anything to help a youngun avoid that, especially my own. And if my Mate did not want her youngun to be a Trader, then I would do everything in my power to make it not happen.”
“You know, it’s worst for girls over here,” she lowered her eyes. “When a girl comes of age, she gets inspected by the Traders, and they can claim her if no one else does. A girl doesn’t necessarily have to be chosen as a Mate, they can be picked for household chores, or carrying and fetching, hunting and gathering, making crafts and goods, things of that sort. My dop brother plans to have one of his friends claim me when I come of age, but if a Blackbeard of rank decides to take me, there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”
“I won’t let them take you,” Trip insisted. “We’ll run away.”
“We’d be taking a terrible chance,” she spoke sadly. “The Traders always tell people that those who try to escape the Network end up poor and starving, and end up having to work in Gasville. We hear such terrible stories about Gasville, Trip, I would rather die than go there. If I thought for a second that you ended up in Gasville because of me, I would surely die. I think we have to think very carefully about whether there is a chance for us.”
“We’ll make it work,” he was adamant. “I have a set of friends on the Acme Top. If they knew what I know now, they would take a chance along with us. They are strong and tough boys, and if all of us stuck together and made it to the Low Ground, I’m sure we’d have a chance. We’ll find a way to send word to them, and we’ll figure a way for them to come over and join us. From here we’ll lower ourselves and start a whole new life together.”
“Trip, that’d be far too dangerous,” she said worriedly. “If the Big Boys found you here, it would take all I have to convince them not to drop you back onto the conveyor. If they found both you and your friends, they’d cross you out for sure.”
“There’s got to be a way for us,” Trip was determined. “I’ve come too far and I’ve gained too much to lose it all by letting you go.”
“And I won’t let you go before you release me first,” she reached over and squeezed his hand. At length the girls came over to Lyrica’s tent and invited them out for dandelion soup. They had made a big kettle full, and many younguns came over with their bowls for a portion. Lyrica had an extra bowl for Trip, and when they were served they crawled back into her tent to enjoy the sample along with a cup of rainwater, which tasted better than steam water.
“This is so delicious!” Trip marveled as he slowly savored the soup to make it last. “What a wonderful recipe!”
“The secret ingredient is the love we put into in,” she beamed. “Everybody puts the best vegetable or spice from their garden into the pot, and it just tastes better and better when we all give something. The Traders laugh about how they trick the Grounders into giving them the dandelions for free. Actually it’s not the dandelions that make the soup, but rather everything else we put in with them.” “Everything seems so beautiful here,” he said wistfully. “Why does there have to be Big Boys? Why does there have to be Traders? If they only spent one day in South Streamtown, they would realize how wonderful they’ve got it here.”
“You have faith and hope, Trip, and that’s what’s special about you,” she said admiringly. “Those who live only to make and take can never believe in happiness, because more is never enough. There’s got to be something somewhere for us, and even if it’s not much it’ll be ours to share.”
“How now, girls,” two of the older boys came over. He recognized the tall, stocky boy as being one of those who had been with Lyrica on the Tower the other day. “Where’s my dop sis?”
“Well, now, she was around her somewhere,” one of the pretty girls looked about. “He’ll find us,” Lyrica crawled past Trip. “I don’t want him to think we’re hiding.”
“There she is,” the boy grinned before his lips slowly curled into a smirk. “And who’s that fellow crawling out of her tent?”
“This is Trip,” she announced cheerily. “He has come over from the Carlisle Top. I was going to go to the Council to announce him so he could spend the day.”
“And what makes you so sure they’d approve him?” he grunted, looking Trip over with disdain. His clothes were also stitched, as was his friend’s, but made of nicer fabric than Trip’s.
“Well, why wouldn’t they?” she asked plaintively. “We have been Morsing for some time and he came to visit. He brought a nice potato for the soup with him, and I think we should be glad to have him.”
“You and your Morsing,” her dop brother sneered. “You know, lots of fellows think they see you Morsing on the south side of the Top instead of the north. And this fellow’s clothes look an awful lot like he’s a Southie.”
“Well, I’ll tell you,” Trip spoke up, “I work on the conveyor belt unloading goods and parts. If I wore as fine clothes as those you have on, they’d get ripped and soiled.”
“Hummph,” he managed. Fellows on this side, being groomed as Big Boys or future traders, were not used to giving or receiving compliments amongst themselves. He smoothed the lapels on his vest and smugly hooked his thumbs into its pockets.
“Trip, this is my dop brother Simva, and his good friend Melo,” she introduced them. “They are the designated traders on our team. Those Traders can’t get anything over on my dop brother, that’s for sure.”
“A Trader’ll turn old and gray before the day comes when he can give me the short end,” Simva boasted. He had his hair cut bowl-style and had thick peach fuzz on his lantern jaws, his blue eyes gazing intently at Trip. “So you’re a lifter, eh? I hear tell there’s not a lot of gain in it, but you’re still a young fellow like the rest of us. Plus you couldn’t have gotten up here if you didn’t know the Code, or they would’ve thrown you over the side by now. You keep coming up here and someone’ll take you over to the Tower soon enough.”
“Oh, I’ve been to the Tower more than a few times,” Trip spoke boldly. “I have some acquaintances that let me by to deal from time to time. None of my co-workers on the Belt know what I do, so they never suspect that I find useful things to take to the Tower now and again.”
“Now, that’s wise of you,” Simva nodded approvingly. Trip noticed that Melo’s look had not changed, and he suspected it was because of Lyrica. “A man who improves his lot by trading is a man who can always take another step up. Come on, fellow, let’s not take a chance of getting crossways with the Big Boys. We will go over and I will announce you.”
Trip walked between Simva and Melo, both of whom were a couple of inches taller than him, as Lyrica followed closely behind him. Team members began gathering inquisitively in order to get a look at the newcomer out of curiosity. At length they came up to a table seated near the eastern parapet along the edge of the roof where the Mayor and the Council sat. The boys all stood up inquiringly as the four youngsters approached.
“I announce this fellow as a visitor for the day on behalf of my dop sis Lyrica,” Simva made a grand gesture towards Trip. “I have examined him and found he knows the Code and has done business at the Tower.”
“He dresses like a Grounder,” the Mayor raised his eyebrows. “But if he knows the Code and has done business, and you vouch for him, then any friend of yours is a friend of ours. Let him be welcome until sunset, and if he lingers he must report it.”
“If he lingers past sunset with my dop sis he will report to me, be sure of it!” Simva looked over his shoulders at the crowd around them, which roared with laughter.
“Enjoy the view, my good fellow!” the Mayor saluted him before rejoining his conversation with the rest of the Council.
“Wow, that went along a lot better than I thought,” Trip was greatly relieved as they parted ways with Simva and Melo.
“Oh, gosh, yes,” Lyrica laughed nervously. “You certainly are a bright fellow. You knew just what words to say with him. I’m so very proud of you. Now we can make plans on how you will spend the night.” “Are you sure it’ll work?” Trip said reluctantly. “You know, I can still pry open the doorway to the roof and sleep in the stairwell. I doubt anyone’s noticed it’s been opened.”
“No,” she insisted. “Now that we are together we mustn’t let anyone pull us apart. I won’t let them separate us. We have a chest behind the tents, it is big enough for you to fit inside. When it gets dark we’ll hide you in there, and by morning we will decide what to do. If worse comes to worse we will use the stairs and take our chances on the Low Ground.”
Trip was beginning to realize that he was in just as desperate a situation as he would have been on the Acme Top in a similar predicament. If Lyrica’s Team found out he had lied to gain access to their Top, there would be no reason for them not to cross him out to keep them from being discovered. He was extremely fortunate that they had not asked how he got over from Carlisle, because if they asked about the cable crossing they would easily find that he lied. He was now concerned that they might stop by again, and he would have to build a good story to keep from being taken back to the Council as an intruder. “I’m afraid that they may come back and ask more questions,” he confided anxiously. “Perhaps it’s best that I go back down the stairwell until tonight.”
“No, we’ll leave together at daybreak,” she was resolute. “I won’t let you leave without me. If we go now, we might betray the Team if the Residents discover us. The girls and I will hide you, and we can leave while the Residents are coming back to work. There are so many people going back and forth, there’ll be less of a chance we’ll be noticed.”
They crawled into Lyrica’s tent and spent the rest of the afternoon telling each other all about their lives on their respective rooftops. She was just as appalled by the primitive conditions on his Top as he was fascinated by the comparative luxury she enjoyed. The girls had made a supper of lentil stew and grass bread, sharing their meal with the couple before Lyrica told them of her plans. They were greatly concerned for her wellbeing, but Trip realized that this was something they had been discussing for a long time. They agreed to put Trip in the chest and watch for him until sunrise.
At length the sun faded into darkness, and a quartet of Big Boys made the rounds, ringing a bell and announcing, “All in! All in!”. Just as at the Acme Top, they would expect everyone to retire to their pods as they patrolled the ledges to ensure that younguns were still not out playing or no one was violating the parapets.
They had packed blankets in the chest, and Trip felt fairly comfortable though it was a tight fit. Yet as it grew silent outside except for the hissing of the steam engines in the distance, a gnawing fear in his stomach made him feel as if the worst was yet ahead. If they inspected the doorway to the roof and found it pried open, it was doubtful they would ask anyone before Lyrica about it. If he left now and jammed it shut from within, they might surmise that the Residents had tried to barge through but had given up their task. Whatever the case may be, it would be far better than for them to suspect that Trip had come up from inside the building. He gently eased the chest open and looked about to ensure that everyone was in their pods and had gone to sleep. He then rose from the chest and slipped out, tiptoeing across the row of tents to where Lyrica’s was. He peered about cautiously, perceiving no movement as he crawled inside her tent.
“Lyrica,” he whispered.
“Trip!” she exhaled softly. He crawled over to where she laid and propped himself on his elbows just above where she laid her head.
“My darling, I couldn’t sleep from worrying about you,” he said softly. “I’m going to go back into the stairwell and fasten the door so no one finds it’s been forced open. We’d risk too much if they came across it.”
“No,” she replied. “I’m going with you.”
He bent down and kissed her, and she hugged him tightly so he could feel her bosom pressed against him. She wore only a silk gown, and he could feel her naked body beneath him. It was too much for any man to withstand, especially one so young as Trip who had never been with a woman before. He began kissing her neck feverishly, and as she grew breathless with passion, he took her breasts in his hands. It was not long before they had pulled his own clothes off, and before long he had entered her as she cried out in ecstasy. They writhed and moaned before exhausting themselves in a delirious climax.
It took them some time to recover, and even longer to dress themselves. Unknown to them, the Big Boys had been making their rounds and came across the doorway to the roof, finding it had been pried open. They lit candles and began spreading out, searching for further signs of intrusion. They realized that no one had seen Trip leave the rooftop, and one of them had been near the cable crossing to the Carlisle building, attesting that no one had left before sunset. They realized that Trip might well have been the one to have come up from the inside of the building, and that he might still be up on Top. The couple saw the candles coming towards the row of tents, and realized they had been discovered. Trip grabbed Lyrica’s hand and pulled her out of the tent, deciding that their best move would be to make it to the north cable and hope that a bucket seat might be lying about. They began running towards the northeast parapet, but at once were cut off by a skirmish line. The couple slowed to a halt, and they were startled at the sight of Simva at the head of the pack.
“I could tell by the look in your eye that you were planning to wait until sunset to have sleep time with my sis!” he grinned wolfishly. “I guess she didn’t tell you I’ve been planning to give her over to Melo when she comes of age! Well, maybe you’ve had her first, but I can guarantee you won’t be the last. Especially after we cross you out, you scavenger!”
Trip knew his greatest fear was about to be realized, and this nightmare would happen before the very eyes of the love of his life. He had seen this happen, how they would hold him down on the dais and apply the Cloth to his face. Once he passed out, they would cut a slit in his forehead and find the spot, then nail the ice pick into his brain. They would then strap him onto a gurney and lower him through the steam clouds to the ground where he would be found by daylight.
“Run, Lyrica, run!” Trip cried out, grabbing her hand again as they bolted to their right towards the south side of the roof. Just as Amit had been chased down on the Acme Top, the Big Boys trotted confidently after the couple, knowing they would have no place to go.
They ran with all their might to the edge of the roof, where Trip knew the conveyor belt was stationed directly below. It was impossible to see through the night and fog, yet he knew it would be sheer luck if they landed on something on the belt which would break their fall. The belt had been shut down for the night, and their only hope was that something soft had been left out there by the late evening shift.
“Lyrica, they won’t do anything to you. Stay here, you’ll be okay. You might be killed if you jump,” he insisted.
“Then let me die with you!” she cried.
He threw himself off the roof, she hanging on to him as they plummeted down through the mist, the impact of their landing drowned by the sounds of steam chimneys hissing in the night.