The streets

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In the machine rooms the temperature varied between the different chambers but remained otherwise constant - the same at the start of a shift as at the end. There had been a constancy to Tarn's environment which had kept his waking hours predictable and logical. As long as he kept his head down and worked hard, nothing ever changed. The gears whirred, the guards shouted, the workers worked.

Already he had realised that up on the surface everything was defined instead by relentless change. Each street was different from the last; every door would be of a varying design, some consisting of simple wooden planks bolted across an opening while others would be carved and ornate, set into an elaborate surrounding frame. Smells shifted from street to street, pleasant and foul mixing into one, while sounds of machinery blended with animals and conversation. Where his life had once been encased entirely in rock, now there was a wild sky overhead, paths underfoot and a previously unimaginable body of water. His eyes revelled in colours he hadn't known existed. He'd sat on the bench by the water's edge, listening to the sounds of people working and watching wooden structures out on the lake, floating back and forth. The world was built of uncertainty.

Observing the men working with nets by the shore, he'd wondered why they kept working when there didn't seem to be any guards around; nobody was telling them to do it or keeping watch. Perhaps they had been working for so long that they couldn't think of doing anything else and no longer needed to be supervised. Maybe they'd make him start working there soon, if they found him.

His dreams had prepared him somewhat for his new surroundings. The sight of mountains and lakes and a city was not as entirely foreign and startling to him as it might have been had he been entirely unprepared but they were still a sudden, corporeal representation of a dream world, leaving him confused as to whether he was awake or sleeping. He dreaded waking to find himself back in his sleeping hole.

The city had turned dark, the sun having disappeared from sight and the sky changed to a scattering of tiny, flickering pinpricks of light. He'd had no time to become accustomed to the streets in the daytime and now found himself lost in shadows, never sure whether to stay hidden or run from one pool of light to the next. The machine rooms had been constantly illuminated, even if dimly, never presenting him with the disorienting contrasts of his new surroundings. If he stayed in the inky darkness for too long he felt that hands would reach out and claw him into a shadowy embrace. His mind flashed back to the tight confines of the pipes, narrowing and narrowing until he couldn't turn around or move his arms.

Keeping to the light brought an entirely different range of threats and worries. He had no idea whether the guards were looking for him. If he was found, would they take him back? Or if he stayed hidden, would he be able to disappear, becoming just another face among many, hidden by the crowds? He couldnt imagine how the guards up here could keep an eye on so many people. The constant barrage of voices surrounded him on all sides, every moment bringing him more words than he'd heard in his entire life. Tarn's language skills had always been better than the other boys but even he found it impossible to filter through the cacophony of accents and exchanges that flowed up and down the streets, in and out of doorways and windows.

While sitting on the bench at the lakefront he'd noticed an increasing number of glances in his direction, prompting him to do something about the state of his clothes, hair and skin. The glowering looks from the fishermen suggested even to his naive sensibilities that bathing away from the busy working waterfront would be wise, so he'd walked along the shore, keeping the city on his left, arcing around the edge of the buildings until he reached a point where the lake transitioned into a river, flowing from the broad ravine between the two enormous mesas. On the opposite shore the city continued, curving around the far side of the lake. The scale of the place was beyond anything he could yet comprehend.

The fishing nets, wooden piers and glowering scowls gave way to larger riverside warehouses and barges, with articulated cranes lifting wooden crates into the air and depositing them somewhere out of sight. The river was straight and wide, its path having cut a craggy gorge through the mesas, large enough to house rows of factories and other buildings on both sides. From here Tarn could make out what seemed to be more buildings built high into the rockface and he had a better view of the stone bridge which spanned the gorge staggeringly high above. The city continued along the side of the river into the gorge, where docks and shipyards and factories lay in shadow beneath the rock, nestled away from the view of the rest of the city. Steam erupted from chimneys and vents on the sides of many of the buildings, giving Tarn an element he could at least recognise and understand.

It was late in the day and the docks were quiet compared to the bustling evening activity of the fishing piers. Tarn found a secluded spot where the river was shielded by stacks of crates and dismantled machinery. Stepping tentatively into the water, he marvelled at how it ran past and around his ankles. Though it had something of an oily sheen, the river was cleaner than anything he'd ever washed in or drunk. He went deeper, feeling the pull of the current around his legs, the cool flow washing away the filth and residue of his escape.

Removing his tattered clothes, he scrubbed them as best he could, dislodging the worst of the dirt even if he couldn't hide all the stains. He waded back to the shore and placed his clothes on the ground next to one of the crates, then returned to the river. The flow was gentle and he went deeper, until it was up to his waist. He lowered himself until the water moved all around him, scattering the detritus of his former life and sweeping it away downstream. Dipping his head underwater, he at first spluttered, surprised at being unable to breathe and nearly losing his footing. He'd never encountered such a body of water before, though he did now remember once choking on a mug of muddy water he'd been given by a guard. He'd always assumed that had been because of the dirt floating in the mug. Trying to breathe underwater reminded him that there was much he didn't know about the world up on the surface. He held his breath the next time, closing his eyes and feeling the water caress his face. There he stayed for as long as his lungs would allow, before bursting back to the surface, kneeling on the pebbled bed of the river as droplets ran down his face.

Though still calloused and cut and ingrained with sweat and oil, Tarn felt clean. An awareness of his body being his own rose to the front of his thoughts. He was a person, with a life, and he could do with it as he pleased.

Since escaping the machine rooms he had been in constant fear and expectation of being found, shackled and returned. In his imaginings he had been dragged, helpless and despairing, back to the filth and torment of the machine rooms. Now, as he knelt in the waters of the valley he knew that would never happen. There would be no surrender without resistance. There would be no return; no meek submission or cowed acceptance. He had changed and he would demand that the world follow suit.

He had been called many things but his name was Tarn, and all would know it before he was done.

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