Legends of Moebius-9, Milo's Escape
I gazed downward in humble satisfaction.
Before me, on a thin plate of aluminum, lay two waffles. Warm steam danced off the surface, the occasional brush of toasty air a welcome reprieve from an otherwise chilly room.
To my left, an Open sign flickered through a single-pane window toward a crowded downtown street in Arlington, Virginia; the exterior noise was chaotic and annoying but muffled.
The maple syrup packet I held in my hand was pathetically small (rations being what they were). But, with some focus, I could cover each waffle in a light layer of golden liquid. It looked good, even though I knew it was synthetic.
I sighed, briefly disappointed that there wasn't more.
Sitting directly across from me was Robert (or Rob, as his friends called him), an older male of around six-and-a-half feet, who also happened to be my coworker. He was a large fellow with a disproportionate face and pudgy chin that rolled over itself. A bushy beard billowed downward from his chin, connecting seamlessly to a chest of overgrown hair.
We were sitting at Jerry's. A single window and a crooked door were the only visible signs from the outside that a food vendor lay within. Yet, it was undoubtedly my favorite spot in the city. An unbecoming exterior usually meant a short line and an available table.
The inside of the shop had no more class than the exterior and was about two small tables wide, and a couple strides deep. This particular morning a cashier reclined behind the front register, lost in a game of pong he was playing on a portable device.
Hungry, I took a bite that was too big for my mouth and looked back up at Rob, who had been talking non-stop since we sat down.
"I'm telling you, Milo, it'll never happen. Do you really think those privileged Birdies are giving us a second thought? Pff…"
He scoffed, pausing to drink his coffee.
"Nah," he continued, "they'll remain in the Perch and dump their leftovers off the balconies like they always do. And, just like we always do, we'll clean it up."
He paused for a while, visualizing a specific memory. The moment was shortlived, however, and his countenance changed to bitterness.
"Or worse, some will eat it," he finally said.
Rob spat on the concrete floor with a loud slap of judgment and took another drink of coffee. I briefly glanced toward the cashier, who looked up, rolled his eyes, and returned to his game.
Relieved, I responded, "you're gonna get us kicked out, Rob."
I didn't particularly like Rob's choice of conversations. It was more constant complaints than anything, but his voice was relaxing and deep, so I didn't stop him.
Rob was a fan of conspiracies, always seeing the worst in the world. He would talk for hours about how the world was unfair and how those working in the Furnace District were doomed to life-long service. He would often venture toward the outlandish and declare with conviction that the Perch had slaves and that it was just a matter of time before we were next.
But nothing made Rob's blood boil more than the mention of Birdies, a slang term used to label those who inhabited the Perch District (referred to loosely by locals as the Perch). Those who called this area home spent their lives socializing on sweeping balconies, sleeping in penthouse suites, and talking politics while sipping sparkling water from their illustrious rooftops.
Removed from the cares of the streets below and high above the smog emitted by the Furnace District, Birdies enjoyed cleaner air and cooler temperatures. Access was restricted to only the wealthiest and most influential individuals. Flying automobiles and a labyrinth of skywalks spanned from tower to tower like the strands of a giant spider web, enabling permanent habitation.
"Besides, Rob," I continued, teasing. "No one is eating food dumped from the Perch."
I knew full well that it was, in fact, a sad truth. But I liked having fun every now and then, especially with Rob, who had a bad habit of overreacting. I shoved the last bit of waffle into my mouth, anticipating a sarcastic response.
"Hah!" The laugh rang across the parlor, causing the cashier to flash a glaring look at me in annoyance. Rob's lips tightened, his patience already gone. "You know fair and square that it's true," he said in a low, warning voice.
The conversation was near the edge, but I risked one last nudge. "Never seen it," I said bluntly.
The anger in his eyes flared up instantly, signaling my time to leave. Rob was the kind of guy loyal to a fault. But he would also punch you just as soon as hug you, both of which I had experienced before.
Rising abruptly, I grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair and turned toward the door. Trying to ease my companion's temper, I tossed him a food credit.
"Tell Sarah and the kids I said hello," I said while walking out the door.
Rob and I were industrial repairmen. The Lower District, where we worked, was a swath of urban metropolis that stretched from Washington D.C. and into neighboring areas like Arlington to the West and Alexandria to the South. While far better living than the toxic pits of the Furnace District, the Lower District was often dark and still within the gloom of a constant smog that blanketed the entire East Coast.
Our job was keeping utilities in working order, particularly the communications infrastructure networked throughout the metropolis. The streets and alleyways were too busy to access during the day, so we worked the night shift, allowing us unfettered access to the maintenance tunnels and data terminals.
I lived in a small suburb called Falls Church, located closer to the Furnace District and about an hour's walk from Jerry's. The housing was cramped and dirty, like everywhere else around here. Still, it was nothing like the Furnace District — something I was grateful to have avoided thus far.
As I exited Jerry's, a small ray of light hit my face as it peered over the buildings around me. Arlington had a packed and crowded population, but it had nowhere near the size of buildings that Washington D.C. had become home to.
And so, on rare occasions, I would get a faint whisper of fresh air as the sun rose in the East. The early morning dampened the smog of the Furnace Districts just enough to allow a break in an otherwise constant veil of ash and mist.
I breathed it in, associating sunlight with clear skies.
One, two, three…
I counted, hoping it would last a few more seconds and I would make it to 10 this time.
Four, five, six…
The sunlight faded as quickly as it came. Darkness returned, and the sting of polluted air again took residence in my throat.
I turned left and began to walk.
After nearly an hour, I came upon Falls Church. The small suburb was quiet, as most people had already left for work. Apartment buildings stood like trees along each side of the road; their rectangular shapes, lightless windows, and undecorated doorsteps made them appear abandoned.
I briefly stopped walking, taking out a pair of headphones from my jacket pocket and attempting to put them on, when I saw something strange.
A person was exiting a residence a hundred feet in front of me. The figure wore all black, with a hood over its head. Opening the door quietly, it then swiftly swung it closed while appearing to lock it with a key. Without looking toward me, the figure bolted out of sight into the small alleyway between the buildings.
Curious, I kept walking.
My heart pounded, though I didn't know why. This person apparently had lawful access to the building and had committed no vandalism, as far as I could tell. But I couldn't shake a feeling.
Why the hurry, I thought. Why the obvious stealth?
As I got closer, I saw a sign in the apartment's window: Brandon's Pawn Shop.
At this moment, I stopped walking. A sick feeling began to grow in my stomach, like when you suspect something is wrong but aren't entirely convinced of it yet.
I took a step forward and began crossing the street. As I approached the apartment, I noticed this was no ordinary living space. The window was filled with exotic and bizarre wares. A cyborg doll, bearing the type of goggles often worn by Furnace District workers, lay on a shelf toward the bottom of the window. Further up, several jars stuffed with glowing mushrooms and exotic fungi were on a makeshift stand. Other merchandise included a gas mask, industrial gloves, a tape player, and oversized headphones.
I cautiously walked to the building's left and gazed down the alleyway through which the mysterious figure had run. Darkness swallowed the rear of it like a gaping mouth. An overgrown wall of trees and shrubs overtook a long-since crumbling brick wall at the far end. Trash and puddles of dirty water occupied the surface of the ground.
It was so dark that, had the figure stood in the center of the alleyway, I wondered if I could have told the difference. Shivering, I chose the more straightforward path: knocking on the front door.
Maybe someone will answer and explain this all away, I thought.
I returned to the front door. It was overlaid by a metal screen door. Ornate decorations of twisted wire, blooming flowers, and rusty edges formed a tacky cage-like exterior.
I grabbed the handle and pulled it back. This revealed a thick wood door with no window and a single knocking handle. It glistened golden against a dark brown surface of peeling paint. I lifted it and knocked quietly.
I knocked again, louder this time.
Still no answer.
Shrugging and eager to leave the situation for good, I let go of the screen door and turned to leave. However, I walked no more than two steps before I saw yet another figure, this time running in my direction as fast as they could.
And if you thought that the first mysterious person who had exited the shop was suspicious, then they would have looked positively normal compared to this person.
Despite being far off, I could clearly see a muscular male. He was dressed in a long black robe with an oversized hood that reminded me of a monk. A thick sash was wrapped around his waist, popping against the black in a dazzling display of light blue. A led pipe beneath his robe bounced rhythmically against his thigh.
He was still some ways away but was gaining ground fast and didn't look very happy to see me. I had to do something. But instead, I stood there, frozen and unable to move. I yelled at my feet to move, but they denied my attempts to control them.
Suddenly, I felt a hand grab my left arm and, with a pull so forceful that I nearly fell over, I was yanked into the alleyway. Spinning me around, the assailant shoved me back with a single push to my chest. Next, they extended their foot behind my legs, causing me to tumble to the ground and against the wall in a quick defeat.
Disoriented and gasping for air, I looked up.
Standing over me was the mysterious figure I had seen leaving the apartment. Now that I was closer, I saw a girl in her early 20s, arrayed in black covert gear and padded armor around her shoulders, elbows, and shins. Her face was hidden behind a gas mask, but her eyes were exposed. And I could tell, even with so little of her features visible, that she was beautiful.
And then, without warning, the alleyway went dark as she punched me in the face.